Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
Single-use Plastic Bottles
PET is readily recycled, and has good infrastructure and end markets. PET bottles are universally collected. I commend companies such as Lucozade Ribena Suntory, which has switched its drinks bottles so that they are made of 100% recycled PET. I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are working with industry to produce a UK bioeconomy strategy that will assess the potential merits of alternative materials, including bio-based plastics. I continue to encourage consumers to use refillable bottles and to take advantage of a growing network of water refill points.
My constituent Noel McGlinchey, who is a food scientist, has demonstrated to me how plant-based plastics such as polylactic acid might be used for plastic bottles, which would then be biodegradable. Do the Government have a view on the use of such plastics, and will the Minister support my campaign, together with Mr McGlinchey, to have them rolled out across the bottling sector?
I have already referred to our bioeconomy strategy, but I point out to the hon. Gentleman that research funded by the UK Government and the EU has not found conclusive evidence in support of claims that are often made in that regard. Those broad concerns are shared by the Waste and Resources Action Programme and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which tonight will launch the UK Plastics Pact. What matters is that we continue to invest in research innovation and try to take steps forward. Through such collaboration and industry partnership, we could make progress in that area.
Will the Minister wake up and talk to our European neighbours? Europe has always led on the environment, and until it got involved with plastics and recycling, we were still burying our waste in holes in the ground. What will we do when we leave the European Union with this environmental policy? No one on the Government Benches is even standing to ask a question about this.
We will have the opportunity to have an even better environment and to take direct action through more local initiatives. I commend the work that is being done across the European Union but, as I said to the hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson), EU-funded research is not supportive of oxo-biodegradable plastics. As we make progress, we must be careful that we do not end up with knee-jerk reactions as we look for these important solutions. We need something that is long lasting.
Single-use plastic bottles can be 100% recyclable but, unfortunately, those that we use do not contain anywhere near 100% recyclable material. How can we influence behaviour in how we dispose of single-use plastic bottles to change that?
I think that the hon. Gentleman will find that most bottles are recyclable; the challenge is how to get more people to recycle them. He might be referring to schemes that the Government have said we will consult on later this year, including a deposit return scheme. One of our biggest challenges involves the littering of plastic, and that is what we want to tackle.
The future farming consultation is still open and continues until Tuesday 8 May. We encourage everyone with an interest in food, farming and the environment to respond. We will make a full assessment of the responses once the 10-week consultation is over, but it is clear from initial responses, and events that have taken place across England, that there is a real appetite to embrace change.
Will my hon. Friend reassure me that as well as protecting and enhancing environmental protections in this country, our future agricultural policy will seek to ensure the primary importance of our landscape as a working agricultural countryside that produces food, and that that will continue to be protected?
Yes, I give my hon. Friend that undertaking. Our consultation sets out how we can change our approach to farm husbandry so that it is more sustainable and we put more emphasis on things such as soil health and water quality. It is clear that we want to support farmers to become more productive and profitable.
Food is obviously vital to life, and in that sense it is a public good. The hon. Gentleman will, I am sure, understand that “public good” is an economic definition that means things for which farmers are not financially rewarded. My view is that food production is vital and essential, and farmers should be rewarded for food production in the market.
The National Trust has two beautiful properties near my constituency—Packwood House and Baddesley Clinton. They would welcome the opportunity for their tenant farmers to be rewarded for the provision of new public goods, but the National Trust seeks assurances from the Minister that if things such as new bridle paths and footpaths need to be provided, there will be long-term sustainability for such a shift.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point—this is crucial as we design environmental land management policy. There will be some interventions that may be highly short term, because they are instant and affect, for instance, the way in which farms approach agronomy or cropping. Others, such as those that my right hon. Friend highlights, may require a longer-term, more multi-annual commitment. That is entirely doable within the nature of the agreements that we are considering.
There are concerns among those involved in agriculture in my area about whether there will continue to be appropriate access to workforce when we leave the European Union. What are the Government doing to ensure that that will be the case?
As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the Migration Advisory Committee is carrying out a large piece of work on the UK’s labour needs after we have left the European Union. We have also listened carefully to industry representations about a seasonal agricultural worker scheme after we leave the European Union, and a working group is looking at seasonal agricultural labour.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
The overwhelming response of farmers to the consultation is that they want to know what help and advice they will get in managing the change from the basic payment to environmental support. As the Minister knows, that is particularly true of smaller and tenant farmers. What will the Government do to put in place some form of advice strategy so that those people can get independent, objective and, more particularly, comprehensive advice about how to completely change many of the ways in which they have farmed in the past?
We will look at that issue, but fundamentally we have been clear that we recognise the current dependency on the existing basic payment scheme—the area payments. That is why we have set out a plan for an agricultural transition period to give farmers, especially those on our smaller family farms, plenty of time to prepare. Our new environmental land management scheme, when published, will have plenty of guidance alongside it.
The Government fully recognise the importance of the seafood sector not only to the economy but, historically and culturally, to coastal and local communities. In 2016, the gross value added for the fish processing sector was £650 million.
Around 5,000 people in the Grimsby-Cleethorpes area are employed in the seafood sector, and it is clear that it is vital to the local economy. Will the Minister reassure the industry that the Government will work with it to ensure a continuation of supplies and create further job opportunities?
I have had the pleasure of visiting my hon. Friend’s constituency, and the Secretary of State will visit it next month. I have met representatives from the processing sector. My hon. Friend’s part of the world is home to a world-beating fish processing industry. I have had detailed dialogue with the sector about the importance of trade with non-EU countries such as Norway and Iceland. I am confident that we can roll forward the trade agreements on which they depend.
The Scottish Creel Fishermen’s Federation says that the cost of fishing could increase by between 40% and 90% if we have no trade deal with the EU. What is the Minister doing to ensure that fishing continues to make its current contribution to the economy?
We have made it clear that, when we leave the EU, it is our intention to depart from relative stability and current quota-sharing arrangements, and there is an opportunity to secure a better and much larger share of fish in the future. Alongside that, as I said earlier, we are seeking a comprehensive free trade agreement with the European Union.
The seafood sector, particularly regarding supply, is very important, and there are great opportunities post-Brexit. Under international law, we only need to offer any supplies that the UK fleet cannot catch. Will the Minister confirm that that will be the case once we leave the common fisheries policy?
Yes. My hon. Friend is an expert in these areas, given her experience, and she will be aware that when we leave the European Union, the UN convention on the law of the sea becomes the new legal baseline. Under that international law, we are responsible for controlling access to our exclusive economic zone. Indeed, as she says, there are also provisions around joint working with partners and others who have a shared interest in the stock.
I got a text message this morning stating:
“If there is any glimmer of hope from Gove I won’t sell.”
That was from a fisherman on the west coast who is short of crew. Now that he knows that the Home Office has run a hostile policy to migrants and migrant workers, he is hoping that he will not be forced to sell, so what will DEFRA do to ensure that the west coast fishing industry, and I believe the fishing industry in Northern Ireland, is not forced out of business? There is a real need for the Home Office to give fishermen pieces of paper to keep the Home Office happy. In other words, we need non-European economic area fishermen—
I am aware that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has written to the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) about this issue, and the hon. Gentleman is aware that we are in dialogue with the Home Office on these issues. As I said, the Migration Advisory Committee is looking in the round at our labour needs after we leave the EU.
Leaving the EU: Food and Drink Industry
There are regular discussions between Ministers about the benefits of leaving the EU, including for the UK’s food and drink industry. We are committed to helping our farmers to grow more, sell more and export more great British food and drink. The Government have made good progress this year on opening access to global markets, and we also have the opportunity to harness the food and drink sector’s ambitious plans for increasing exports as part of a sector deal under our industrial strategy.
Those discussions must have been the shortest in history if they were about the benefits of leaving the European Union.
This week, the chief executive of the National Farmers Union warned against selling out agriculture for simple ideology. Does not the Secretary of State accept that the unilateral decision to withdraw from the customs union and single market was based purely on ideology? When is he going to stop the platitudes and the mild assurances, and accept that that ideological decision threatens to destroy the future of agriculture in these islands?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. I have to say that the discussions about the benefits of leaving the EU that I undertake with my Cabinet colleagues go long into the night, often fuelled and sustained by glasses of fine Scotch whisky and smoked salmon from parts of that beautiful country. One of the things we appreciate is that the appetite for smoked salmon, whisky and Scottish and British produce is growing faster outside the European Union than it is within it.
Scotland produces some of the finest food and drink, which is exported around the world. That allows us to punch well above our weight in terms of balance of payments, and it is based on our valued Scottish brand. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to protect Scotland the brand to ensure that our reputation for quality food and drink is enhanced during and after the Brexit process?
That is a very constructive contribution, because Scotland is a very powerful brand. I mentioned whisky and smoked salmon, and it is the case that the high-quality food producers of Scotland—from those who are responsible for beef in the north-east of Scotland to those who are responsible for the wonderful organic carrots and potatoes of Aberdeenshire—are individuals who work incredibly hard, and it is my desire to champion them. That is why I am just a little bit sad that the First Minister of Scotland has decided not to collaborate with the UK Government to make sure that we have effective UK-wide frameworks so that we provide a firm platform for future exports and growth.
There is growing demand for dairy products, and not just in the middle east and south Asia, as we have also had a very successful drive to increase sales of organic milk to the United States of America. Our dairy farmers do an amazing job and the opportunities for their quality products—yoghurt, cheese and others—to be sold worldwide will only increase as we leave the EU.
While acknowledging that food and drink labelling will be subject to a UK framework post-Brexit, may I ask my right hon. Friend to join me in supporting the Diabetes UK “Food Upfront” campaign to improve food labelling and introduce traffic-light systems so that people suffering with that condition can be clear about the nutritional value of pre-packaged food and drink?
My hon. Friend makes a characteristically acute point. We want to ensure not only that we produce more food, but that we produce more healthy food and help consumers to make the right choices. When we are outside the European Union, we can improve our approach on food labelling.
Food processors in my constituency export their products directly to the Republic of Ireland, straight off the production line. They fear that Brexit might require them to follow new procedures that would delay their exports, largely because of a lack of warehouse space in the Greater Manchester area. What assurances can the Secretary of State give them?
I have already met, and hope to meet again very shortly, Ministers in the Irish Government to ensure that we have a shared approach across these islands and that trade can continue to flow with as little friction as possible, but our success will require good will on every side. I therefore look forward to visiting Ireland in the week after next to talk to its Agriculture Minister and those directly involved in trade.
Let me first congratulate my hon. Friend on being the leader of the group of 50 Conservative Members who gave up single-use plastic for Lent. Her leadership in that regard is well known.
Our microbead ban is one of the toughest in the world. We have taken more than 9 billion plastic bags out of circulation through the 5p levy; we have announced that we want to end the sale of plastic straws and stirrers and plastic-stemmed cotton buds; and we are consulting on the deposit return scheme. At the Commonwealth summit, we launched the Commonwealth Blue Charter as a group of 53 nations. I am pleased to say that the UK and Vanuatu are leading the Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance, which brings together countries, businesses and non-governmental organisations to tackle the global challenge of plastic in the marine environment.
I was delighted by this morning’s news that all our top supermarkets will ensure that all their plastic is recyclable within seven years. We know that half the plastic in the oceans comes from developing countries, but only 0.1% of our overseas aid is spent on helping those countries to deal with waste. Will you work with the International Development Secretary to increase that amount?
I am pleased to say that that is already under way. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister recently announced a £61.4 million Commonwealth oceans package to boost global research and development. In particular, £3 million will fund new waste management initiatives in cities, building on the successful waste management programme launched by the Department for International Development in Sierra Leone. We are also funding the £6 million Commonwealth litter programme.
Does the Minister accept the very weak analysis of UK marine litter in the UK’s “Marine Strategy Part Three”, which has been highlighted by the Environmental Audit Committee? Given that 80% of marine litter comes from the land, is there a plan to monitor litter levels and how the litter reaches the marine environment? When will the Government announce a timescale for the publication of a more accurate assessment of the levels and impacts of marine litter?
A year ago we launched the litter strategy, in which we said that we would estimate a baseline. The inclement weather in the first part of the year has led to a slight delay in the gathering of research findings, but we intend to publish them before the summer so that we can take effective action where there are hotspots. I encourage people to join the clean-up, organised by the Daily Mail and Keep Britain Tidy, which will take place between 11 and 13 May. The purge of plastic goes forever forwards.
Obviously, plastic bottle litter is a huge part of the problem. When will the Government take real action? I know that a consultation is taking place, but will the Minister commit herself to introducing, as soon as possible, effective legislation to provide for a deposit return scheme covering drink containers of all sizes, including plastic bottles? Will she confirm that she has the Treasury’s support in working with producers to finance such a scheme?
The front end of a deposit return scheme is pretty common across different systems; the challenge is how the scheme is operated and financed. We need a scheme that will be effective in tackling on-the-go consumption in particular. No other country faces that specific challenge, and that is why it is taking us some time to complete the consultation, which will be published later this year. If legislation is required, we will of course introduce it, but at this stage we need to work out the details of the scheme.
At the launch of the 25-year environment plan, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister identified that issue of the wide range of polymers used. I assure my hon. Friend that the Government are working, through officials, with the Waste and Resources Action Programme and the UK plastics pact to undertake the research and innovation required for manufacturers to work together to reduce the number of polymers, so that there are fewer of them and they can be recycled more readily.
Fisheries White Paper
We have committed to introducing a fisheries Bill in this Session of Parliament, and we will publish a White Paper in due course. It will set out our vision for future fisheries management and the legal requirements to manage our fisheries in future.
Given that the Government have failed in their pledge to take back absolute control of our fishing waters from day one of leaving the European Union, can the Minister be explicit about how he intends to use the powers that he already has domestically to redistribute fishing quota, to deliver a better and fairer deal for our coastal communities?
We have already made many changes to give additional quota to the small under-10 metre fleet in particular. We permanently realigned some unused quota in 2012, and since the introduction of the discard ban, the annual quota uplift has been top-sliced and additional quota given to the under-10 metre sector each and every year.
Leaving the EU: Agriculture Frameworks
I regularly meet Ministers from the Scottish Government and other devolved Administrations. The most recent occasion on which I did so was 26 February, to discuss the Government’s planned agriculture consultation document. I am looking forward to seeing Ministers from Scotland and Wales, as well as representatives from the Northern Ireland Administration, on 14 May in Edinburgh.
My right hon. Friend will understand that, whether potatoes are grown in the Mearns or in the March fens, they must all be grown under common UK regulations; otherwise we risk damaging the UK internal market. Does he therefore agree that farmers across the UK expect UK-wide regulations and that politicians must not throw up artificial barriers for narrow political gain?
My hon. Friend makes an absolutely brilliant point. Recently, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has been negotiating with devolved Administrations to ensure that, as we leave the European Union, we can have a successful internal market in the United Kingdom. Agreement has been reached with the Welsh Government. Mark Drakeford, the Labour Minister, has shown a degree of flexibility and taken a constructive approach, which is in stark contrast to that of the Scottish Government and the First Minister of Scotland, who has put a narrow ideological pursuit of separation ahead of the interests of the people of Scotland—and not for the first time, either.
We want to make sure that, as is the case at the moment, farmers in Wales—indeed, farmers under all the devolved Administrations—receive more money than would be strictly the case under the Barnett formula. It is appropriate that they should continue to do so, because of the unique nature of the landscapes they farm.
I do not think that anyone disagrees that there might be a need for common frameworks, but I do not think they would disagree either that democratic decisions by democratically elected Parliaments are artificial barriers, so will the Secretary of State guarantee that no frameworks will be imposed across the UK without the democratic consent of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly?
That is a good try, but the hon. Gentleman knows that the stark contrast between the constructive approach of the Labour Administration in Cardiff and the obstructive approach of the nationalist Administration in Holyrood does not redound to the credit of the Scottish National party. The truth is that the SNP has only one policy, which is separation. Everything else is tactics and they are prepared to throw Scottish farmers under the bus—[Interruption]—or, indeed, the bandwagon in their desperate desire to elevate the destruction of the United Kingdom above the creation of wealth for the people of Scotland.
National Park Authorities
The Department is currently recruiting Secretary of State-appointed members for five national parks, including the Peak District. The full criteria have been published as part of the recruitment process. In 2018, these include a commitment to the statutory purpose of the national parks, an understanding of farming or environmental land management, an ability to champion national parks and an ability to provide advice and challenge.
National parks play an important role in protecting our areas of outstanding natural beauty, but they are excluded from any of the Government housing targets. That means ever-increasing house prices in those areas. Will any future appointments have this as part of their criteria, to ensure that we see some limited development in every village?
One of the criteria involves providing advice and challenge. It is important that we continue to build new homes right across the country, but we need to balance that with maintaining the protection of our most beautiful landscapes. My right hon. Friend might be aware that there is to be a national parks review, and I will certainly draw his concerns to the reviewer’s attention.
Does the Minister share my sense of regret that not one member of the Yorkshire Dales national park authority lives in any of the great towns or cities West Yorkshire? Does she further agree that if there were more urban dwellers on national park authorities, they would be likely to take more notice of the recent report by the Campaign for National Parks urging more public transport from the towns and cities into the parks?
The national parks tend to reflect a more rural, countryside landscape than an urban environment. There are different ways to identify the conservation areas that are often prevalent across towns and cities, including those in West Yorkshire. I will share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns with the Minister responsible for this portfolio, my hon. Friend Lord Gardiner.
Common Fisheries Policy
On 19 March, the UK and the EU reached agreement on the nature and length of a transition period. Under the agreement, current fisheries rules will continue to apply until the end of 2020. However, in December 2020, we will negotiate fishing opportunities for 2021 as a third country and an independent coastal state outside the common fisheries policy.
The Secretary of State has admitted that the Government accepted a “sub-optimal outcome” for the UK’s fishing industry in the Brexit negotiations, although I think that people in Hull would call it something else. Can the Minister guarantee that, at the end of the transition period, our fishing rights will not be traded away for some other political or economic priority?
I was delighted to be able to be present at the Countryside Alliance’s “Rural Oscars” awards in the Cholmondeley Room of the House of Lords yesterday. A number of the local businesses that do so much to help local food economies and to sustain and champion local food production were celebrated for their outstanding work, and I was pleased that businesses from across England and Wales were celebrated in that way.
My constituency has a long coastline and, unfortunately, a large amount of plastic pollution, like the rest of our island nation. The coastal communities of Gower are working hard to gain plastic-free status, and thanks to an active community councillor, Susan Rodaway, beach cleans are taking place across the constituency. Will the Government heed the call of the Environmental Audit Committee and introduce a coastal clean-up fund to support the removal of plastic waste from our beaches and seas?
I know the hon. Lady’s constituency, and I know what a beautiful coastline it has. The beach at Rhossili bay in particular is one of the most iconic landscapes in the United Kingdom, and we need to do absolutely everything we can to free those landscapes and our marine environment from litter. I will look at her request. I understand that funding for these matters is devolved, but of course all the nations of the United Kingdom can work together to keep our seas and our beaches cleaner.
We strongly disagree with the position set out in that European Parliament report, and I can confirm that we will become an independent coastal state at the end of the transition period.
The Foreign Secretary and I—[Interruption.] —will be holding a conference on the illegal wildlife trade in the autumn. It will be our aim to ensure that many of the creatures that my hon. Friend mentioned—charismatic megafauna or, as you and I would think of them, Mr Speaker, attractive big beasts—are preserved for the future.
Not only do we hope to introduce legislation to improve the courts’ powers and access to additional sentencing sanctions for those who are responsible for acts of horrific animal cruelty, but we also want, as was confirmed by the Lords Minister in the Department for Exiting the European Union last night, to introduce legislation to ensure that the principle of animal sentience is recognised and, indeed, enhanced after we leave the EU.
T.S. Eliot said:
“When a Cat adopts you,”
you just have
“to put up with it and wait until the wind changes.”
A cruel wind may be blowing for the thousands of cat owners who put protective fencing in place to stop their much-loved pets joining the hundreds of thousands that are killed by cars on our roads each year. Will the Secretary of State, a noted cat owner, stand alongside those friends of felines, or will he send T. S. Eliot spinning in his grave and many cats to theirs, too?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for raising both cat welfare and invoking the spirit of T. S. Eliot. At the beginning of “The Waste Land”, T. S. Eliot wrote:
“April is the cruellest month”.
But this April will not be a month in which cruelty towards any living thing will be tolerated. We want to introduce legislation to ensure that the use of shock collars as a means of restraining animals in a way that causes them pain is adequately dealt with.
My right hon. Friend raises another important point in that containment fences can play a valuable role in ensuring that individual animals, dogs and cats, can roam free in the domestic environment in which they are loved and cared for. Several submissions have been made to our consultation on the matter. I know that my right hon. Friend cares deeply about the welfare of domestic pets and other animals, and he and others have made representations that we are reflecting on carefully.
Teesdale farmers tell me payments that should have been made under the higher level stewardship scheme are late. They are upland farmers on the lowest incomes. Will Ministers stop blaming Europe and sort out their own administration?
We have made a number of changes and are working very hard to deal with the current problems with countryside stewardship, and progress has been made. I would simply say that we are not blaming the European Union. It is true that it has changed the rules so that all agreements must be processed simultaneously, whereas they used to be processed across the year, which has caused major administrative problems both for the Government and for farmers.
Only 49% of the food consumed in the UK is produced in the UK, while our annual trade deficit on food and drink is now £23 billion a year and rising. What is the Secretary of State doing to address these challenges to our national security and economic sustainability?
The UK’s current food production-to-supply ratio is actually 76% for indigenous-type foods and 60% for all foods. That is not low by historical standards and has been relatively stable in recent years. However, we want to have a vibrant, successful, profitable food and farming industry, and our recent consultation sets out some thoughts to deliver that.
Following local concerns about an animal rescue centre in my constituency of Leigh, I was shocked to learn that in England there are currently no regulations or licensing requirements for pet rescue centres. Will the Government commit to introducing proposals to protect the welfare of animals in rescue centres?
We recently introduced new regulations and licensing requirements covering commercial boarding establishments, but there are no current plans to regulate rescue homes. We do not want to create unnecessary burdens on the charitable sector. However, many such establishments are members of the Association of Dogs and Cats Homes, members of which must already meet minimum standards.
I think we can all agree that we have great British food and great British farming, but we also have a processing industry that is 13% of our manufacturing sector. Why does the Command Paper not talk more about food, food security and food production, which are essential not only for our environment but for our food security in this country?
The Chairman of the Select Committee and I share a commitment to making sure that the food and drink sector can become an even more important part of our economy in the future. As well as the consultation on the future of food, farming and the environment, which the “Health and Harmony” Command Paper initiated, there is ongoing work to develop a sector deal as part of the broader industrial strategy, on which the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy leads.
Last week, the Secretary of State told my Committee that the agriculture Bill is no longer urgent as we have agreed a transition period with the EU. Farmers are the bedrock of Britain’s food industry, but if the European Communities Act 1972 is repealed in March 2019, what is the legal basis on which he will continue to make farm payments? Will it be through extending article 50 or through the transition Bill, taking us straight back into the EU for the transition period?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue. We are consulting at the moment on how we can improve food labelling to ensure that we can provide consumers with greater choice, but it is also important to bear in mind that freedom of religious worship and practice is a core virtue of the United Kingdom. Although I believe very strongly in improving animal welfare standards, I also believe that we should show appropriate respect towards those individuals, from whatever faith background, who want to ensure that the meat they eat is prepared in accordance with their religious traditions.
The recent floods in York brought back into sharp focus the serious gaps that still exist in resilience planning and in the insurance market. What is the Secretary of State doing to advance that, and will he meet me to talk about these serious issues?
I would be more than delighted to meet the hon. Lady. She will be aware of the Government’s ongoing investment to improve defences, but I am more than happy to discuss further resilience measures that home owners and business owners can take.
Last weekend more than 35,000 volunteers collected 65 tonnes of plastic waste from 571 beaches across the United Kingdom, organised by Surfers Against Sewage. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating and thanking all those volunteers, and does he agree that we now have a grassroots unstoppable people’s movement determined to rid our coast of plastic waste?
Surfers Against Sewage has done an amazing job in creating wider awareness of what we all need to do together to cleanse our oceans and seas of litter. The Plastic Free Parliament campaign, and its encouragement of all Members of the House to move away from plastic and embrace appropriate alternatives is a model of social action, and one that I know you are anxious to embrace as well, Mr Speaker.
The right hon Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Freedom of Religion or Belief
The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Commonwealth initiative for freedom of religion or belief convened a two-day summit at Lambeth Palace last week involving 40 parliamentarians and religious leaders from 11 Commonwealth countries. The aim of the meeting was to look at ways in which parliamentarians and leaders from across the Commonwealth could champion freedom of religion or belief.
That is encouraging to hear. The Commonwealth and the Church of England have similar values where they overlap. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the two organisations continue to work in unison to influence Governments in countries where freedom of religion is not respected?
The geography of the Anglican Communion and the Commonwealth do overlap; in fact the communion is larger still. The charter of the Commonwealth contains a commitment to freedom of religion or belief, but the truth is that not all members abide by that. The personal relationships built at Commonwealth meetings and across the Anglican Communion mean that faith communities must advocate for the same global standards for freedom of religion and belief.
It is sad to see Commonwealth countries on Open Doors UK’s world watch list of Christian persecution around the world. What more can we do following the Heads of Government conference to promote tolerance between people of faith and none in the long term in the Commonwealth?
A number of actions were agreed at that seminar. For Lambeth Palace and the Anglican Communion, freedom of religion remains an important priority. Every time the Archbishop of Canterbury visits a Commonwealth country where there is a problem you can be sure, Mr Speaker, that he will raise it.
Part of the initiative in the Commonwealth involves developing a toolkit that Members of Parliament can use to champion issues of freedom of religion and belief in our constituencies.
Is the Church of England aware of deeply disturbing reports that restrictions on the freedom of Christians to practise their faith have severely increased this year in China, including a ban on taking children under 18 to church? If so, what step is the Church taking on this?
The Church of England is very aware of those reports, and China is a priority for the Archbishop of Canterbury. He hopes to be able to take up the invitation to go there, when I am sure he will raise these issues. Even before such a visit, Church officials are engaging with Chinese officials to discover the implications of the new five-year plan on religious engagement and raise concerns where it appears that Christians are being oppressed.
The Church has for many years been involved in the recycling, reuse and repurposing of materials. It completely embraces the circular economy. Most recently, the Church’s environment programme ran a “Lent Plastic Challenge”, which was supported by 40 MPs. It produced a calendar of things we could do on each of the 40 days of Lent, and it was helpful to all who took part to see how much we can do individually.
Last weekend I attended the launch of the Catholic diocese of Middlesbrough’s book about how we can live simpler lives. What is the Church of England doing to further its reach into communities to help people to change their behaviours and lifestyles?
As I have said, all of us as MPs had a golden opportunity during Lent to use the calendar produced by the Church of England, which was available to all Church members and was very popular throughout the Church community. Every day it set a challenge to each of us to do something to change the way we live our lives so that they are simpler and embrace the circular economy. Within the Church, a number of churches embrace the concept completely, with 860 participating as eco-churches in the Big Church Switch, for example, which is looking at ways to ensure that the energy we use comes from renewable sources. We promote the circular economy right across the Church of England.
Yesterday I hosted a reception to highlight the interest of the Church of England in working with the Government and others to support a viable future for rural schools. The Church has published “Embracing Change: Rural and Small Schools”, which I commend to the House.
The Church obviously should be taking a long-term, if not eternal, approach on rural schools. People in Startforth were disappointed when a brief dip in performance led to the closure of that Church school, so in future will the Church take into account the significance of rural schools as community assets?
The Church of England has 4,700 schools, of which 53% are in rural areas. That often presents challenges—for example, the difficulty in recruiting and retaining teachers—but the report that I have referred to highlights those challenges. In addition to that report, we have a Church of England educational leadership foundation, which is designed to encourage and retain teachers, to ensure that children in small rural schools do not suffer as a result of the shortage of teachers.
Following the publication of the findings from the Department for Education’s consultation on out-of-school settings, I am pleased to say that the Government have sharpened their focus on tackling risks associated with unregulated out-of-school settings and have come up with proposals that are far more proportionate for use. The Church of England has welcomed this.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is essential that the Government combat radicalisation, but in a way that does not mean the state encroaching on the realm of religion or crossing the Rubicon in a way that could one day lead to the assessment of Sunday schools and the like?
Of course, the Church of England completely underlines the importance of tackling radicalisation, but the original proposals might have caught education in out-of-school settings such as Sunday schools, where teachers are subject to Criminal Records Bureau checks—as everybody in this place who has ever taught in one will know—and domestic premises used to teach children out of school have to be inspected too. The new proposals are proportionate to use and have been welcomed by the Church of England.
The right hon. Lady knows that I have been a champion of forest schools and out-of-school education with the John Clare Trust over many years. More worrying is out-of-school education in foreign parts. Many churches support orphanages around the world, but very often they are not orphanages and are not for orphans, but are used in child trafficking. Many churches support these so-called orphanages, so will she look into that?
The hon. Gentleman raises a serious point. I heard the broadcast of the “Sunday” programme about an Australian Senator who is pioneering an amendment to Australia’s modern-day slavery legislation to ensure that the whole world wises up to the risks associated with donating to orphanages that might be a scam or a front for children who are subsequently trafficked, or certainly put at risk. All of us need to be aware in our dealings with our constituents and their churches of the need to look carefully at where those resources go and how they are used.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
Election Expenses: Northern Ireland
On 12 March 2018, the Electoral Commission published the first information about political donations and loans in Northern Ireland following the necessary legislation coming into force. This gives details about donations and loans received from 1 July 2017. The Electoral Commission welcomes this transparency, but continues to urge the Government to bring forward additional legislation to enable transparency from 1 January 2014, as envisaged by the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2014.
I am grateful for that answer, because it confirms the clear view of the Electoral Commission that full transparency requires donations from 2014 to be fully declared, including the £425,000 donation that was effectively laundered through the good offices of the Democratic Unionist party, which was almost certainly raised in mainland Great Britain and almost entirely spent in mainland Great Britain. Will the hon. Lady tell us whose interests can possibly be protected by keeping that particular donation secret?
The law requires the Electoral Commission to keep confidential all information about donations and loans in Northern Ireland before 1 July 2017, and it is unable to make any comments about donations to the DUP prior to that point. However, it remains of the view that donations and loans from 1 January 2014 should be published and continues to urge the Government to bring forward the necessary legislation.
Public Accounts Commission
The hon. Member for Gainsborough, the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission, was asked—
I have been asked to reply on behalf of the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission.
The National Audit Office’s investigation published in March 2018 sets out factually the sequence of events leading up to the Department for Transport’s announcement in July 2017, cancelling the three electrification projects in response to concerns raised about the decision-making process. As such, the majority of the report is focused on the period up to, and including, July 2017 when the Department announced its decision. The investigation also considered the Department’s assessment of the subsequent impact of its decision on promised benefits. The facts in the report were agreed by the Department and reflect evidence that was provided to the NAO.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his tireless work in this area on behalf of his constituents. The NAO conducts investigations to establish the underlying facts and circumstances where concerns have been raised. Investigations are not evaluative and do not seek to provide a conclusion on value for money. The report was focused on the concerns that had been raised. However, the report does comment on the costs and benefits of the three cancelled electrification projects and the case for electrification more generally. In the Secretary of State’s announcement in July 2017, he explained that projects were cancelled on the basis that it was no longer necessary to electrify every line to deliver passenger benefits. The NAO investigation says that it was too early to tell whether the promised benefits could be achieved without full electrification. When the Secretary of State made his decision to cancel electrification, the Department told the NAO that it expected the manufacturers to be able to develop bi-mode trains that would deliver the required service improvements on the midland main line.
House of Commons Commission
The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
Representations have been made through previous oral questions to the House of Commons Commission, including by the hon. Gentleman himself. He may remember that I responded in similar terms to the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) in January. The Commission has given no formal consideration to a move to electronic voting in the House as part of either the restoration and renewal programme or the northern estate programme. Its responsibility in this matter is limited to any financial or staffing implications of any change to the present system were such a change to be agreed by the House.
Can the right hon. Gentleman explain whether the Commission would be prepared to receive any such representations, or whether there should be some other mechanism by which this House can actually have a proper debate and a proper discussion about dragging ourselves somewhere into the late 20th century in time for this restoration and renewal somewhere in the middle of the 21st century?
I thank the hon. Gentleman. I suspect that, from earlier responses, he will be aware that he needs to present his ideas, in the initial stages, to the Procedure Committee for it to consider. However, there will also be an opportunity, as part of a consultation around the northern estate programme, for him to contribute, and he could contribute in advance of that by contacting Emma Wharton who is responsible for that programme and for the restoration and renewal. I am sure that she would be happy to receive his representation.
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Protection of Churches
The Church works closely with Historic England and other bodies to provide advice and guidance for local authorities. In most cases, good and sensible decisions are made. Disputes do arise in a small number of cases, such as at my own parish church, where the argument was eventually won that we could use a lead substitute product after the lead had been stolen twice.
I am grateful for that answer. St Mary the Virgin’s church in my constituency is a rare and beautiful example of one of the finest small Anglo-Saxon churches in the country, going back to the 7th century. It is threatened by a large-scale development and it has fallen to Historic England to submit objections. Historic England indicates that the proposals would have a harmful impact on the setting of the church and, indeed, of Seaham Hall. Is there a role for the Church of England or the Church Commissioners to object to such developments in order to protect the setting of churches of historical importance?
I understand that the local authority has taken a decision that would adversely affect the setting of this beautiful grade I listed Anglo-Saxon church. I will be in discussion with the diocese about what support we can provide as a stakeholder in this important decision.
Theft from Churches
The Church is concerned about the significant rise in metal theft, which is not unconnected to the fact that the price of lead and copper on world markets has risen by 65%. Our advice to churches follows that of the police, which is to do target hardening wherever possible. There are a certain number of practical suggestions that I can provide that may assist with this inquiry.
While all thefts should be condemned, it is particularly despicable to steal from churches and their graveyards. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what impact the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013—pioneered by Sir Richard Ottaway—has had on the situation?
There is no question but that the private Member’s Bill promoted by our dear friend and former Member of this House gave rise to a change in Government legislation on metal theft. However, there are new thefts—not just of metal, but of stone, ornamental artefacts and even, recently, some 12th-century keys. This is why I have joined the revised all-party parliamentary group on metal and stone theft, and I encourage other Members to support its work in Parliament.
Just as with metal, it is very important to mark artefacts with smart water, dye or in other ways where possible, so that thieves may be caught and ultimately prosecuted when artefacts turn up in dealers’ yards. The APPG will be involved in this work and the Church of England will actively support it.