Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
Deposit Return Scheme
The answer is yes.
Tomorrow, a team from AB InBev brewery and Keep Wales Tidy will again be out cleaning up the shores of the Severn estuary, which highlights the very urgent action that is needed to protect our environment from the devastating impact of plastic pollution. Will the Secretary of State confirm that he has Treasury backing for a deposit return scheme, and when will we see some action?
We have already seen formidable action to embrace the opportunities that a deposit return scheme would provide and to ensure that we deal with the environmental damage the hon. Lady mentioned. I should take this opportunity to say that it is not just the Treasury that recognises the importance of acting, but our colleagues in the Scottish and Welsh Governments, with whom we have had collaborative successful discussions as well.
Is it not true that this project need not cost the Treasury any money whatsoever, and that we should just get on with it?
No one is keener on getting on with things, and indeed on saving money, than my right hon. Friend, whose own record in government is one of the most distinguished over the past seven years—and, in fact, beyond. He is absolutely right: in delay there lies no plenty.
Keep Wales Tidy does a great job in Blaenau Gwent, too. What steps are the Government taking to address the problem of plastic waste at the manufacturer level?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. We already have our plastics pact, which has been agreed by WRAP—the Waste and Resources Action Programme—a charity that we support. That commitment was made by leading companies across the United Kingdom to ensure that they use less virgin material, and that more of the plastic they use is recycled or recyclable. We are also thinking hard about reform of the producer responsibility note scheme, and we will be saying more about that later.
When looking at international comparisons of best practice for deposit return schemes, which countries is the Secretary of State looking at most closely?
No country has a perfect model, but we have looked at examples in Scandinavia. One of the things that those countries have been so successful in achieving is a phenomenal level of return—and, indeed, high levels of recycling. We need to think carefully about the nature of drinking and the pattern of consumption in the United Kingdom to see what exactly would work and go with the grain of consumption habits here.
Beyond incentives such as the deposit scheme, what discussions has my right hon. Friend had with the Chancellor about improving the UK’s recycling infrastructure so that we can recycle a wider range of products, such as coffee cups and microwave oven-ready cartons?
My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has initiated a review of the taxation and treatment of single-use plastics overall. One of the things we want to do is to make sure that the money that producers remit as a result of using particular materials is used to ensure improved recycling across the country. I know that Treasury Ministers—not just my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, but the Exchequer Secretary—are working hard on these matters.
Leaving the EU: Agricultural Sector
Whatever the nature of our future economic partnership with the European Union, we will design and implement our own independent agriculture policy based on financial rewards and incentives for the delivery of public goods, and support farmers in reducing their costs and adding value to their produce so that they become more profitable.
I take it from that answer that we do not actually have any plans in place yet, and time is ticking. The Minister knows that something in the region of two thirds of our red meat exports go to the European Union. The lack of certainty about our future customs relationship with the EU is now causing real and substantial concern. When will the Minister remove that uncertainty?
I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman. We have already published our consultation on future agriculture policy—we are analysing the 44,000 responses —and we are looking at this closely. On the issue of trade, the UK is also a very important market for the European Union, notably for Irish beef, poultry from the Netherlands and pork from Denmark, so it is also in the EU’s interests to have a comprehensive free trade agreement.
Farmers in my constituency are concerned about a lack of focus on food production in agriculture policy post Brexit. Farmers are the biggest guardians of our environment, and they can protect the environment and produce food at the same time. What support will the Minister give farmers to enable them to produce food post Brexit?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point, and a number of farmers have also raised the issue with me. I would simply say that the consultation had sections on safeguarding a profitable future for farming, on fairness in the supply chain, on risk and resilience, and on investment in research and development, so there was lots on food production. I simply say that we want to change the way we farm so that it is more sustainable; not stop farming, or do work on the environment instead of farming.
I asked the Minister back in March whether he had held meetings to discuss the problems that might arise because of the overuse of antibiotics in US farming, if we were to move to trading with the US and accept its standards. He would not confirm whether he had met representatives of the Department of Health and Social Care or the Department for International Trade to ensure that we could rule out imports of meat produced in the US, which has five times the use of antibiotics that we have in this country.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State recently met the chief medical officer to talk about the important issue of antibiotics use. We also have the O’Neill report, which set key targets for the UK to reduce its use of antibiotics, and the UK has campaigned globally through various international forums to reduce the use of antibiotics in agriculture.
Would my hon. Friend be surprised to learn that farmers in my constituency, while hoping that there will be a trade deal with the European Union, say that Brexit will provide a marvellous opportunity regardless of whether there is any such deal? In particular, specialist food manufacturers such as cheese manufacturers feel that if we can do free trade deals with countries such as the United States and Canada, that will increase their sales.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. This is an opportunity for us to have a very different approach to agriculture policy and to support producers in this country as we look to the future. It is worth noting that analysis commissioned by the National Farmers Union shows that, even without a trade deal with the EU, most sectors in farming would see a slight firming in farm gate prices.
One of the most critical issues facing our rural communities is the need to ensure that we have a reliable seasonal workforce to harvest our produce this summer. At the Scottish Affairs Committee, the Immigration Minister said that she would not give anything to Scotland that she would not give to Lincolnshire. In Scotland, that went down like a trailer full of rotten raspberries, and I dare the Minister to repeat it. Will the hon. Gentleman tell Scotland—and indeed Lincolnshire—when he intends to announce a new seasonal workers scheme? What will he say to growers in Scotland and Lincolnshire who now face the prospect of their produce rotting in the fields?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I spent 10 years working in the soft fruit industry and I understand the issue of labour in some detail. We are having discussions with the Home Office and other parts of Government about the future arrangements for immigration and a seasonal agricultural workers scheme.
In the responses to “Health and Harmony”, the two areas of greatest concern were the impact of the withdrawal of the basic payments scheme on smaller farmers and tenant farmers, and the transition period. What discussions has the Minister had with the Treasury about extending the transition period, given that that must be the right way to approach this?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State spoke to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury about these issues just a couple of days ago. We made a clear manifesto commitment to protect spending on agriculture until 2022—the end of this Parliament. Thereafter we will have a new funded policy.
The Government are investing £2.6 billion to better protect the country from flooding. This includes a programme of more than 1,500 flood defence schemes, which will better protect 300,000 homes by 2021. The programme will deliver £30 billion of economic benefit for the next 50 years and is projected to reduce overall flood risk to the economy by 5% by 2021.
The 2015 Boxing day floods devastated the Redvales and Radcliffe areas of Bury. The Environment Agency has drawn up a £37 million flood defence scheme for the area but, after raising £30 million between the EA, Greater Manchester and Bury Council, there is a £7 million shortfall. That shortfall would be covered if the bid with the Minister were successful. After being unsuccessful in the first round, we are to be considered again for funding from the £40 million pot for deprived areas. Can he update me on the progress of the bid? Successful bids to date have protected fewer than 100 homes, but ours would protect 1,200.
The hon. Gentleman has been a clear champion for his local community in raising these issues with the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey). He can be assured that his bid is being given serious consideration in relation to the £40 million floods fund for growth and regeneration and that decisions will be made by the summer.
Mr Speaker, I am sure that you have seen the devastating pictures of flooding in Birmingham, the wider west midlands and other parts of the country, including 30 to 40 homes in my constituency. Is it not the case that it was the Conservatives who secured universal affordable flood insurance for the victims after inheriting a situation in which the Association of British Insurers had given notice to end the so-called statement of principles in 2008?
My right hon. Friend is of course right, and our thoughts are with the families who have been affected by the floods, particularly the family of Peter Harnwell, who sadly died despite the best efforts of the emergency services when his vehicle was submerged. Thanks to the Government’s efforts, the vast majority of households at high flood risk now have access to home insurance through Flood Re, which has active plans in place to engage with all communities after flood events once the immediate emergency has subsided.
I join the Minister in sending our sincere condolences to the family of the gentleman who sadly died in Walsall following the extreme flash flooding earlier this month. I also pay tribute to the emergency services and others who worked so hard to protect our communities during that period of extreme weather.
Further to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (James Frith), in the 2017 autumn Budget, the Government allocated £40 million to boost regeneration in communities at high risk of flooding but, six months on, not a penny has been allocated. Will the Minister tell the House what is causing that delay?
The allocation of flood defence funding is important, as the hon. Lady will appreciate, and it is being properly scrutinised. Conversations are being had and, as I said to the hon. Member for Bury North (James Frith), a decision will be made this summer.
Will the Minister confirm that the creation of 15 hectares of new habitat remains a funded part of the Oxford flood alleviation scheme, which may affect my constituents?
I do not know the detail of that scheme, but I will talk about it in depth with my hon. Friend afterwards to give him the assurances that he needs.
The best form of flood defence is upper catchment management, yet the £45 million provided in York is going towards downstream emergency measures. It was not incorporated in the national strategic review, so what are the Minister’s plans to start investing in upland management?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. Looking at natural ways to tackle floods, such as planting trees and wood-based flood defences further upstream, is a priority. We are taking that action further forward with a fund and a plan.
The Minister will recall that the entire Humber estuary, particularly my constituency, was badly affected by a tidal surge in December 2013. There is still concern among residents that insufficient work has been done. Will the Minister meet me and neighbouring MPs to provide an update?
I understand the concerns raised by my hon. Friend, and I am of course more than willing to meet him to discuss them in detail.
Producer Responsibility Systems
We are developing a renewed strategy on resources and waste, which will include reviewing how the producer responsibility scheme works to ensure that we can invest more in recycling.
Does the Secretary of State agree that a reformed packaging recovery note system could provide funds for better recycling and waste collection, particularly for on-the-go packaging; reduce litter; and increase recycling rates? Does he also agree that that is a better option than the “latte levy” scheme, under which there is no assurance that the money will go towards environmental improvements?
My hon. Friend, who knows a great deal about packaging, waste and recycling, makes an important point. If we impose particular costs on producers, we should whenever possible ensure that those costs then go towards environmental enhancement and improving recycling. I am sure that his well-pitched case will be heard with sympathy in the Treasury.
I urge the Secretary of State to be radical here. Not only should he look at how PRNs work and their effectiveness, but he should consider the supply chain of those who make plastics. Professor Steve Evans at the Institute for Manufacturing in Cambridge believes that manufacturing will have to change fundamentally to tackle the problem. Will the Secretary of State speak to him?
Not for the first time, the hon. Gentleman makes a thoughtful point. It is the case that the PRN scheme needs reform, but he is also right that we will have to think about how we change packaging and the supply chains upon which we have relied in the past. I will take up his kind invitation.
The Secretary of State is going have a chat with the prof, and that is very good to learn.
Leaving the EU: Environmental Standards
As the House will know, the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill provides continuity and maintains high environmental and other standards as we leave the European Union. My Department is consulting on environmental principles and governance to ensure that we can have a world-leading body to hold the Government and others to account in order to maintain high environmental standards.
I think that the Secretary of State is seeking to group this Question with that of the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands).
As ever, Mr Speaker, you anticipate my wishes with perfect clarity.
The “polluter pays” principle underpins the EU’s approach to protecting the environment. Will the Secretary of State commit to the post-Brexit watchdog having legally enforceable powers to make sure the polluter still pays when it damages our land, air and sea, even if that is the UK Government breaking air pollution rules?
The hon. Lady makes three very good points. First, yes, the polluter pays principle is an important one to maintain. Secondly, we do need enforcement powers. Thirdly, of course, if the UK Government are in breach of air quality rules, it will be the case, as in the past, that they have to be held accountable.
We do not believe in kicking cans down the road; we believe that a deposit return scheme is a very effective way of making sure those cans are recycled.
The UK Government have published a consultation paper, “Health and Harmony”, which outlines a post-common agricultural policy future for farmers in England. The Scottish Government have not yet done so. I have the highest regard for Fergus Ewing, the Minister responsible, but, energetic and talented though he is, the one thing he has not done is spell out his vision for the future.
A planning application has been made in my constituency for a recycling plant that will produce dioxins. There is no such plant in the United Kingdom or, as I understand it, in the EU. By the time this process goes through, we will probably be out of the EU. Will the Secretary of State give an undertaking to meet me and members of RAID—Residents Against Inappropriate Development—who think the construction of a dioxin plant in my constituency, or anywhere in the UK, is unacceptable?
I am always happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss this issue.
The Secretary of State will be familiar with the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty and that, in common with other AONBs, it receives a support scheme for landscape protection and enhancement. Obviously, as a member of the European Union, we have to get derogations and permissions because of state aid restrictions. Can the Secretary of State assure me that support will continue after we have left the European Union? Will he give me an undertaking that he will use this added freedom to increase those funds and support for these valuable and precious areas of our countryside?
My right hon. Friend makes a good point. The Chilterns are blessed not only as an area of outstanding natural beauty, but with distinguished representatives in this House of all parties and none. One of the things I will seek to do is to work with the new reviewer of designated landscapes, Julian Glover, who is a distinguished writer and thinker, to ensure that the right protection and support are there not only for our existing national parks, but for our AONBs.
The Secretary of State says that this new watchdog must have enforcement powers, but the watchdog he has proposed is completely toothless. It will be able to issue only advisory notices, not enforcement notices, and has no power to fine the Government. That has rightly been rejected by the other place. We expect an amendment from their lordships to come to this place next week. Will he table an amendment to his toothless watchdog, or should I do so?
I am always grateful to the hon. Lady for all her suggestions, amendments and thoughts. We are consulting. We are asking the public exactly how many and what type of teeth this watchdog should have, but we are saying that the watchdog should start with enforcement powers, which include advisory notices. It is then open for discussion as to what additional powers the watchdog might have.
It is also the case that Back-Bench Conservative colleagues have tabled amendments, and we are considering those amendments. The hon. Lady makes a good point that the House of Lords made a case in good faith for how the watchdog could be strengthened, and I always listen to the other place with respect.
I hope that colleagues now feel enlightened about the teeth situation.
Our proposals to enshrine animal sentience in domestic law and to extend mandatory sentences for cruelty to five years received positive responses, and we plan to publish the findings of those consultations soon.
I thank the Minister for his reply. Given that five-year sentencing for animal cruelty has gained cross-party support from MPs, the animal sector and the public, will he tell us how soon he will announce the details of when sentences can be given to those guilty of such awful crimes?
I agree with my hon. Friend on the importance of this measure, and for some time I have pressed to have maximum sentences for cruelty extended, particularly for some of the most shocking cases of cruelty. The Government are committed to doing this, we have published how we intend to do it, and as soon as parliamentary time allows we intend to introduce this change.
DEFRA and the Environment Agency take the environmental risks associated with oil and gas exploration very seriously. We have a robust regulatory regime, drawn from global best practice and more than 50 years’ experience of regulating the onshore oil and gas industry safely in this country. The Environment Agency will issue a permit only if it is satisfied that any risks to people and the environment can be effectively managed.
Given that lots of people are concerned in certain areas where fracking can happen, what is the Minister doing to hold meaningful discussions and involve them in the decision making, so that they feel that their voice has been heard?
As always, the hon. Gentleman asks an insightful question. Our regulatory regime currently lets local residents have their say on two stages in the environmental permitting process: when the application is received by the Environment Agency; and at the draft decision stage, before the permit is finalised. A public consultation takes place once the planning application has been permitted. On 17 May, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government set out that they would be strengthening community engagement further by consulting in due course on the potential to make pre-application consultation a statutory requirement.
Why does the Minister not make a statement on behalf of the Government to stop fracking altogether?
The Government believe, rightly, that shale gas plays an important part in our energy mix and will be an important bridging fuel in the transition to renewable technologies.
Leaving the EU: Fishing Industry
Leaving the European Union will provide new opportunities for the UK fishing industry, including in Northern Ireland. On leaving the EU, we will become an independent coastal state controlling access to our own exclusive economic zone, and the fisheries Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech last year will introduce the powers necessary to do this.
I thank the Minister for that response. For the fishing sector, it is important that fishing our own waters will take place. As he will know, the voisinage agreement continues to be an obstacle to that happening, so will he update us on what is happening in relation to that?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The voisinage agreement gives Northern Ireland vessels and Irish Republic vessels access to one another’s waters, and it predates the existence of the EU. Following a decision by Ireland’s Supreme Court, its side of this has been suspended, pending further legislation. We intend to put further pressure on the Irish Government to raise this issue to ensure that they act on the undertaking they have given to re-establish their side of this agreement.
Can the Minister confirm that he has a plan to get the UK fleet through the implementation period, in order to tackle the challenges of ensuring we have enough fish to catch and implementing the discards ban?
Yes, I can confirm that we do. We have been working in regional groups on the discards plan, looking at ways to deal with the problem of choke species. In the past week, I have written to Commissioner Vella with some suggestions on how we can adopt the right approach to deal with choke species, particularly hake in the North sea and haddock in the Celtic sea. I assure my hon. Friend that we are still working on these issues.
Given that unfortunately fishermen’s rights have been traded away during the transition period, is not the best way to guarantee that we regain full control of the exclusive economic zone after Brexit to rejoin the European economic area and the European Free Trade Association?
Fishing has not been traded away in the transition agreement. We have made it clear in that agreement that nothing will change for the time-limited period until the end of December 2020, but we will negotiate as an independent coastal state in that year, 2020, for fishing opportunities in 2021.
The fishing industry is hugely important to Scotland, and many fishermen and boat owners want to know what steps the Government are taking to make sure that non-EEA nationals can access the sea.
I know that the Scottish industry has raised the issue of labour, and its representatives recently met the relevant Home Office Minister. The Migration Advisory Committee is looking into the whole issue of our labour and migration needs after we leave the European Union, and representations have been made to the Home Office on the issue.
Fishing is extremely important to my Moray constituency, so will the Minister join me in welcoming—perhaps for the only time—the Scottish National party report this week that said that Brexit could generate £540 million for the fishing industry and 5,000 jobs?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Government Members are clear that we should leave the European Union and that there are opportunities for our fishing industry. The disaster for the Scottish fishing industry would be if we were not to deliver Brexit and leave the European Union, thereby throwing away those opportunities.
We recently strengthened the Environment Agency’s powers to tackle problem waste sites and we allocated an extra £30 million for waste enforcement in last year’s Budget. We have also consulted on tightening the permitting and exemptions regime to improve the waste sector’s performance. Later this year, we will publish a resources and waste strategy that will set out our wider approach.
I welcome the new powers given to the Environment Agency. Will my hon. Friend confirm that those new powers will enable it to curb effectively the rise of waste sites, which continue to break the law and blight our communities?
Yes, I can confirm to my hon. Friend that the new powers will enable the Environment Agency to do that. For example, they give the Environment Agency the power to lock gates and physically close down problem sites, and to require all waste to be removed from a site at which there are problems. We are also going to introduce tougher standards for those who hold licences.
On Monday, I shall join Newcastle volunteers on a litter-pick, but they cannot be expected to deal with the vast tubs of oil waste left by fast food outlets or mattresses left by landlords when their tenants change. What additional powers and resources will the Minister give to local authorities so that my constituents can live in the environment that they deserve?
We have already made it clear that we are going to consult on tightening up the powers to take action against people who give their waste to fly-tippers, so that we can bring them to account more easily. Later this year, our resources and waste strategy will address some of the issues that the hon. Lady mentioned.
Additional powers are all well and good, but without additional resources, local authorities can do nothing effective because of the restrictions on their budgets. We have a particular problem in Enfield with things such as tyres and with skip companies not following legislation. It is difficult for the council to prosecute when resources are so tight, so what is the Minister going to do?
All such sites are covered by a permitting regime that is run by the Environment Agency. We have put £60 million of extra money into the Environment Agency in recent years, including £30 million in the past year to deal with these sorts of problems.
Tomorrow is World Oceans Day, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will travel to Canada to ensure that, in common with other G7 countries, we do everything we can to make sure that our marine environment is healthy. Much of the Government’s groundwork for the conference was undertaken by the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey); I know that everyone in the House will wish her well for a speedy recovery and a return to the Front Bench.
May I join my right hon. Friend in sending good wishes to our hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey)? Will he perhaps come to Staffordshire to see the excellent soft fruit, vegetable and salad farming that goes on there and also to discuss the needs for the future, in particular labour needs and needs for addressing the challenges and opportunities that lie before us?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I had the opportunity to visit soft fruit and salad growers in Cambridgeshire and in Norfolk recently and I appreciate the labour concerns that they have. I will take the opportunity to visit Staffordshire as soon as I can.
The Government’s 25-year environment plan sets out commitments to protect our natural environment. Will the Secretary of State outline the steps that he is taking to recognise and protect local wildlife sites, which are currently under threat of development from proposed changes to the national planning policy framework?
I thank the hon. Lady for raising that question. I have had the opportunity to discuss these issues with the Minister for Housing and Planning, and we want no weakening in any protection for these sites.
I am sure the Secretary of State is aware that, if implemented, these proposals could effectively unprotect 42,000 sites in this country. May I ask whether he was consulted by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government before this policy was put forward? If yes, how did this get into the policy, and if he was not consulted, why not, when the Government have such a strong commitment to the environment?
Without going into all the conversations that we have had—and we have had a series of them with colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government—the inference that many have drawn from the way in which the consultation has taken place is not one that we considered to be warranted. That is why I provide the reassurance that I have at this Dispatch Box, and I know that colleagues in the MHCLG will do so as well thanks to the hon. Lady’s question.
I can reassure my hon. Friend that I regularly meet members of the under-10 metre sector. Their trade body, the New Under Ten Fishermens Association, meets regularly and is actively engaged in discussions about future policy.
I know that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor will look with interest at that submission for the forthcoming Budget.
I absolutely will. My hon. Friend and I both have heathland in our constituencies and both of us know from personal experience how important grazing can be to the effective management of lowland heathland. It is absolutely the case that the RPA, under Paul Caldwell, is doing a good job, but I am absolutely committed to making sure that we support those who do such valuable work more effectively.
Westminster has not stolen anything from Scotland’s farmers. Indeed, it is only thanks to the strength and the unity of the United Kingdom that Scotland’s farmers have a firm platform on which to build. One of the things that I thought was striking at the general election, which we all remember with such fondness occurring only 12 months ago, was that Scottish National party colleagues, many of them talented individuals, lost their seats to Scottish Conservative and Unionist colleagues because rural Scotland knows that its interests are better represented by the party of the Union than by the divisive, grievance-mongering separatists who masquerade as Scotland’s voice but who are, in fact, Scotland’s girners.
I thank my right hon. Friend for raising that issue. We have no intention of rolling out badger culling throughout the low-risk area. However, in response to one single incident that we have had in Cumbria of an outbreak that has got into the badger population in a limited way, we have consulted to ensure that we have the option to deal with that following veterinary advice and the advice of our chief scientific adviser.
The Secretary of State is using his current role to flirt with radicalism—in particular, taking cheap shots at the payments made to the landed aristocracy. Rather than capping total amounts paid in the future scheme, would it not be more sensible to look at the rate of return and the marginality of the land?
The hon. Lady, who is a former Treasury civil servant, makes a vital point. As a Conservative, when I take shots at the landed aristocracy, they are not cheap. I find that when the landed aristocracy want others to undertake shooting with them, they often ask quite a high price.
The Secretary of State obviously speaks with experience of these matters, of which I confess I have none.
In the past couple of days I have received a veritable flurry of emails from my constituents, who want to ensure that our environmental laws will be strengthened, or at least maintained, after Brexit. What reassurance would the Secretary of State like to give to the people of Chelmsford?
I thank my hon. Friend for making that point and for her advocacy for this cause. We are listening with respect to the arguments that have been made by her constituents, Members of the other place and the public about the need to maintain and enhance high environmental standards. That is why we will be looking with interest at some of the amendments tabled by Back-Bench colleagues.
Just before the recess, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government made an announcement about proposals for a consultation to create a single shale gas regulator. Can the Secretary of State assure the House that there will be absolutely no change to the powers of the Environment Agency to protect our environment on fracking sites?
Yes, I can. The Environment Agency has been very clear about the vital role that it plays in providing assurance that environmental safeguards are always in place when hydraulic fracturing or other forms of hydrocarbon extraction take place.
Single sentence questions now.
What consideration has the Secretary of State given to including hippos and other ivory-bearing species in the Ivory Bill?
We are looking forward to discussing this in Committee and looking sympathetically on well-made cases.
The Department’s own family food survey found that even when poorer households buy cheaper food, they still spend a higher proportion of their income on it than average households, because of low wages. Does the Secretary of State still stand by his patronising comments that poorer people find “solace” in eating cheap junk food?
My comments to the all-party parliamentary environment group, which were inspired by a very good question from the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), were explicitly designed to say that we should not patronise or judge people on poorer incomes for the choices they make. I know that the hon. Member for South Shields (Mrs Lewell-Buck) is very busy, but had she been there she would have had a better understanding of the context in which those comments were made.
What are the Government doing to introduce and increase the use of biodegradable packaging?
We recognise that biodegradable packaging should be an alternative to existing forms of packaging wherever possible. We are considering how we can change the taxation and regulation of packaging in order to facilitate the use of biodegradable materials.
What is the Secretary of State going to do to stop the ludicrous and unpleasant practice of farmers illegally putting up great big hoardings in their fields, on the side of motorways? Surely one of the things that makes the British landscape different from elsewhere in Europe is that we have legislation to prevent that.
I share the hon. Gentleman’s commitment to ensuring that our green and pleasant land stays beautiful, and I will investigate this matter.
What reassurances can my right hon. Friend give the all-party parliamentary group on endangered species that the protections in the Ivory Bill will be in place in time for the illegal wildlife trade conference in the autumn?
My hon. Friend makes a very good point. The conference, which will take place on 10 and 11 October, is critical in bringing together international co-operation to help safeguard endangered species. I hope that, with the leave of the House, we will have legislation on the statute book well before then.
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
The Clewer initiative was set up in 2017 as a three-year, fixed-term project with the express aim of securing a world free from slavery. It enables dioceses to develop strategies so that we can better detect instances of modern slavery and provide support and care to victims.
I welcome the Church of England’s commitment to tackling modern slavery. Can the right hon. Lady confirm whether the exploitation of vulnerable young people and adults in the county lines drugs trade is also a focus of the Clewer initiative? What work is the Church doing with the police, the Government and other parties to tackle this menace?
The Church works very closely with a large number of partners in order to try to stamp out modern-day slavery, including the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association, the National Crime Agency, the National Police Chiefs Council and immigration service officers—all the parties that need to be involved. The exploitation of very young, vulnerable children in trafficking drugs for illegal gangmasters is something that all these agencies need to work together on, and the Church supports that strongly.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend will recognise the work that faith communities do in protecting the victims of human trafficking. Will she welcome the role of the Clewer initiative in detecting trafficked people in our communities?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. In March, the Clewer initiative launched a campaign called Hidden Voices, basically so that all of us open our eyes and our ears to the slavery that is all around us. It provides residential training courses for faith communities and day courses, so that we all become more sensitised to see what is happening around us.
One of the most important ministries of the episcopal diocese of Jerusalem has been the ministry of dialogue and reconciliation between Christians, Muslims and Jews. Its archbishop recently announced the establishment of the diocesan department for peace, reconciliation and interfaith dialogue. We were very lucky, Mr Speaker, recently to have a visit from the Dean of Jerusalem to the Houses of Parliament to talk about its work.
Is the right hon. Lady worried that the number of Christians in the Palestinian territories is declining? What more can be done to bring together, in particular, young people of different faith communities?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. The Christian community on the west bank has plummeted as people have left in droves to come to live in Europe or to go to live in America. It is a particular challenge to persuade young people to remain. If they leave for university, it is quite often difficult to get back. So the Church is working very hard on this. There is a scheme whereby children from the region can do exchanges with children in other places. For example, 16 children from the Zebabdeh community did an exchange with Ballinteer Community School in Dublin. This enables them to see beyond their tight and very difficult world but also to feel supported in remaining in their homes, where their roots are.
On Maundy Thursday this year, I had the privilege of attending a service at St Paul’s church in Shefa-Amr, the Anglican church in northern Israel. I commend the work that the Anglican diocese of Jerusalem does throughout the entire diocese, both in Israel and on the west bank. May I urge my right hon. Friend perhaps to visit some of these churches and encourage them as they support their congregations in this wider ministry?
There is no substitute for a first-hand account. I know that my hon. Friend is knowledgeable about the work that the Anglican Church does with all communities in Israel. I hope that, one day, in the not too distant future, I shall get the chance to go to see this for myself, perhaps with some colleagues who have also not had the opportunity to visit the holy land.
Earlier this year, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was shut to visitors because of some pressure that the Israeli authorities were putting on because of land changes. Will the right hon. Lady make sure that, through her dialogue with our Church, she talks to the Israeli authorities to make sure that that church is kept open, because visitors want to visit it?
When the Dean of Jerusalem came to visit parliamentarians in both Houses, he explained in great detail the political background to what is going on. If I share with the House that this gentleman is a Christian Israeli, and actually no less than the son of a carpenter from Nazareth, perhaps Members will see that there was no person better qualified to explain to us, as British parliamentarians, just how complicated the situation is in Jerusalem. I think we have to trust the people who really understand this well to try to work through to peaceful solutions for that part of the world.
The Columba declaration was designed to set up a contact group to initiate and promote activities that strengthen the partnership in mission between the Church of England and the Church of Scotland. It was set up and met for the first time in November 2017.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer. In this year, when the Church of Scotland General Assembly has in the Right Rev. Susan Brown elected its fourth female moderator and London has gained its first female bishop, might my right hon. Friend expand on the work that the Churches are doing to attract a wider range of applicants to the ministry?
First, through my hon. Friend, I would like to congratulate the Right Rev. Susan Brown on her appointment. This is now an increasingly strong trend. The Queen has just named the Very Rev. Vivienne Faull as the next Bishop of Bristol, which brings us to a total of 15 female bishops in the Church of England. The ministry department within the Church is also conscious of the need to diversify and encourage more applicants from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. It has set up a mentoring scheme, and if any hon. Members would like to be mentors for applicants from those communities, they would be very welcome.
It so happens that my hon. Friend’s constituency lies in the diocese of Lichfield, which has just issued new guidelines that call for a Church where LGBTQ people feel welcomed and honoured. That letter was sent to all clergy and lay ministers in the diocese, which has 600 churches and covers a population of 2 million people.
My right hon. Friend will understand that the whole question of gay marriage has not exactly endeared the Church of England to gay people. Nevertheless, I am encouraged by what she says. Perhaps she could expand a little more on what is happening in the Lichfield constituency, which extends all the way to the border with Wales.
All four Bishops in that diocese—the Bishops of Lichfield, Wolverhampton, Stafford and Shrewsbury—are signatories to that initiative, which gives practical expression to what the Archbishop of Canterbury was referring to when he talked about radical Christian inclusion.
My right hon. Friend knows that same-sex marriages can receive a blessing in some churches, but sadly can be refused in others. What can she do to ensure that that inequality is addressed immediately and that this very important ceremony is offered throughout all our churches in the United Kingdom?
Across the Anglican communion, this is a difficult subject; I acknowledge that. Not all people either in this country or across the wider communion are of one view. The Church is working very hard to try to obtain better understanding. A conversation ensued across the Church of England to try to help people of different points of view to come to a greater understanding of the other person’s point of view, and the Bishop of Newcastle is tasked with running a group relating to sexuality in the Church. Blessings, where they occur, are often at the discretion of the diocese, and the Church is nothing if not a devolved institution.
Mr Speaker, in case you are looking for a new hobby that will build on your already excellent level of fitness and mental alertness, you need look no further than bell ringing. Churches are always looking for new volunteers to whom they can show the ropes.
I am most grateful to the right hon. Lady for her advice. I have been to the church in Lillingstone Lovell—to mention just one location in my splendid constituency—where there are some very enthusiastic and capable bell ringers. Maybe other invitations will be forthcoming.
But there are bats in that belfry.
There may be bats in the belfry; I do not know. The hon. Gentleman is chuntering from a sedentary position. Whether he does so with the advantage of knowledge of the matter is a divisible proposition.
In contrast with bell ringers in churches in most other countries in the world, in this country, bell ringers can change the order in which the bells are rung, thus allowing for great creativity and the creation of wonderful different sounds. It is a startling fact that 95% of all the churches in the world where that is possible are located in England. Is not now the time to celebrate this wonderful part of English heritage and unique contribution to church music?
My hon. Friend has done a good job of presenting the significance of bell ringing in our culture and its wider impact across the world. That significance is recognised by the Church of England, and the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers has promoted a campaign called “Ringing Remembers”, the purpose of which is to recruit 1,400 new bell ringers in honour of the 1,400 who lost their lives in world war one. The endeavour will be to ring the bells of churches throughout the land on the centenary of the Armistice this year.
I gather, by the way, that bell ringing is quite a strenuous business; it is not to be underestimated by colleagues.
The wonderfully historic Anglican church, St Mark’s in Newtownards in the heart of my constituency, has a working belfry. Does the right hon. Lady believe that there is an acceptable level of funding to help with the upkeep of such towers and their bells? If not, will she apply pressure on the Government to ensure that there is?
I had the great privilege of ringing a bell in a Church of Ireland church, and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on highlighting the significance of bell ringing in his constituency. If hon. Members have in their constituencies churches that are in need of grants or funds for the restoration of bells—time is short before the centenary of the Armistice—the ChurchCare website has grants available to repair and restore bells. Other sources of funding are also available—indeed, a grade 1 listed church in Castle Bromwich secured funding from English Heritage. Grants are available, and Members should assist their churches in securing them so that they may be part of the great occasion of the centenary of the Armistice.
Nigeria: Violence against Christians
My hon. Friend is a trade envoy to Nigeria, and he has a wealth of knowledge about that part of the world. The Archbishop of Canterbury also has a great deal of knowledge about Nigeria, having lived and worked there, and he cares deeply about the persecution of Christians around the world. He has appealed publicly and directly in face-to-face meetings to the Nigerian President, to try to bring the violence against Christians to an end.
After the recent terrible massacre of Christians attending church in the middle of Nigeria, the President was summoned to Parliament, service chiefs and security advisers had motions of no confidence passed against them, and Parliament was suspended. Does that not show that the country is taking the problem seriously?
There is no doubt that the problem is being taken to the heart of the Nigerian constitution and its institutions. I remind my hon. Friend that on 22 May we had a debate in Westminster Hall at which many Members raised reports from Christian Solidarity Worldwide about the terrible violence perpetrated against Christians, particularly in the north of Nigeria, but also in the middle belt and as far south as Delta state where the oil is. Let us not forget that there are still Chibok girls in captivity. The issue may have fallen from the top hit list of interests and press themes, but young girls are still held in captivity; one of them in May spent her 15th birthday in captivity because she would not renounce her faith.
I am certain that Christian Solidarity Worldwide, which is a magnificent organisation, will appreciate the tribute that the right hon. Lady has just paid to it, and she will share my conviction that it is fantastically represented by Ben Rogers, among others.
Religious Literacy Training
The Church of England fully supports the provision of religious literacy training across all Government Departments. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office provides religious literacy training through the LSE Faith Centre, following an open competition. It is essential that diplomats abroad and officials here at home understand the histories of different faiths.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for that answer. Religious conflict is obviously worst in the middle east. My understanding is that the training is not compulsory. Will she have a conversation with the Minister with responsibility for the middle east and north Africa about this matter?
Despite the training provided by the LSE Faith Centre receiving excellent reviews, the uptake is disappointing. Perhaps the hon. Lady would like to join me in having a conversation with the Minister for the Middle East, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), who is very knowledgeable about the area, to see if we can advance take-up of the course across all Government Departments.
The Church of England works internationally to support vulnerable children in various ways through its diocesan links and through Anglican mission agencies. It regularly assesses the range of support provided to make sure of best practice, especially with regard to vulnerable children.
It is evident that there are many good orphanages in the most troubled parts of the world. There is also evidence, however, that some are used for child trafficking and are not really orphanages. Will the right hon. Lady join me in writing to the Archbishop of Canterbury to ask for a meeting and a commission on this involving all the aid agencies? I am bringing together all my local churches and other faith groups to discuss the issue. We must have an assurance that money raised by churches in this country goes to the right places.
The hon. Gentleman and I have both seen the presentation by the charity Home for Good. It brought to our midst an Australian Senator who is pioneering an amendment to modern-day slavery legislation on orphanage trafficking. She made a very important point that there is a cognitive dissonance. In this country, we would not tend to go first to an orphanage as a solution for the needs of a vulnerable child, yet we often give resources to such provision abroad without actually knowing whether they definitely get to the source and whether the children are well cared for by that source. It is very important that we pursue this topic rigorously and I am willing to support the hon. Gentleman’s multi-agency approach.
In England, the Church Commissioners have identified land for development which has the potential to provide an estimated 24,000 new homes, including more than 30% affordable homes, subject to the requirements of the local planning authority.
That is a good news. I am sure the right hon. Lady will not be surprised that, in my constituency, which has such a severe housing problem, many of my churches are keen to deliver their Christian mission in part by providing long-term properly affordable homes. St John’s Hoxton has hit a real problem. Because it is in a heritage setting, it is grade 2 listed. Paragraphs 144 and 145 of the national planning policy framework, on planning and development, prohibit the church from building, and prohibit the council from giving it permission to build, affordable homes on the site. Is she or the Church having conversations with the planning authorities about how to change the law?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for advance notice of this case. I have looked at it and I think the difficulty is that a range of local stakeholders, including Historic England and the local planning authority, do not support the proposed scheme. The difficulty relates to constructing houses on green space, which is also at a premium in London. To give her some encouragement, in the adjoining diocese of Southwark, a very similar scheme was passed after a couple of years of to-ing and fro-ing and trying to make it acceptable to all stakeholders. I encourage her to work together with all stakeholders to try to find the optimum solution.
House of Commons Commission
The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
I am afraid that information has been collated only since 2012, but there have been two incidents involving Members hurting themselves, I think using the steps into the Division Lobbies, one this year and one last year.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that answer. I have only been here for less than a year and in that time I think I have seen three or four incidents, not least with pregnant female colleagues fainting in the Lobby. It seems rather bizarre that we stuff hundreds of people into a locked room for Divisions. Next week, we will have no fewer than 15 Divisions. Will the right hon. Gentleman undertake to look at electronic voting, which would make this place at least look like it is in the 21st century?
I rather anticipated that that would be the hon. Gentleman’s line of inquiry. The first thing I would say is that Members who suffer an injury should report it. On the two incidents I mentioned, action will be taken to improve lighting. That should happen next month. On electronic voting, he will know from the answers I have given in the past that this is perhaps very much a matter for a Backbench Business debate and for the Procedure Committee to consider.
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Gay Conversion Therapy
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, because this allows me to update the House on the similar question that he asked me in January. I did follow my promise to write to the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), who has responsibility for mental health, and arrange a meeting with her, which was constructive—the right hon. Gentleman came with me. She explained that the Department is surveying the extent of gay conversion therapy. I wrote to her again on 23 April requesting a copy of that Government survey, so that we might all benefit from their findings.
I thank the right hon. Lady very much for what she has done to help on the issue of the intolerable practice of conversion therapy. Can I ask her to go back to the Minister and ask for a timescale? The Minister acknowledged that the problem was bigger than the Government had hitherto recognised and she did promise action. It would be nice to know when we might see that action.
To bring this absolutely up to date, I received a response from the Minister for Women and Equalities on the subject, which stated that the Minister would welcome another meeting with us, so I suggest that we take her up on her kind offer.
Very useful, thank you. I think the House owes a considerable debt of gratitude to the Second Church Estates Commissioner, the right hon. Member for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman), perhaps today, even more than ordinarily, because she has answered 10 of the 11 questions. In the process, she has undergone something of an exercise routine, having had to bounce up and down repeatedly to attend to the queries of right hon. and hon. Members. We are very greatly obliged to her for the quality of her answers and for the spirit in which they have been provided.
Her reward is in heaven.
For the benefit of those listening to our proceedings, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) chunters from a sedentary position that the right hon. Lady’s reward is in heaven.