House of Commons
Wednesday 10 October 2018
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
Perhaps, Mr Speaker, on behalf of those who were in the Chamber a moment ago, you might convey to the Chaplain our thanks for her preface to her prayers today. Let us hope that that spirit goes with us during what could be quite a turbulent term. Her words were well chosen.
Some 20.2 million Yemenis are estimated to need humanitarian assistance, with 8.4 million facing extreme food shortages. Insecurity and bureaucratic constraints complicate the diplomatic response. We continue to work with partners to reach the most vulnerable, and we urge all parties to ensure unhindered access through Yemen. Only a political settlement can end the humanitarian crisis.
The Minister knows that I respect him, and I am grateful to him for that answer, but the United Nations says that we are losing our fight to save lives in Yemen. Some people are so desperate that they are eating leaves, and there have been more than a million cases of cholera in the past 18 months alone. What urgent and immediate action can we in this country take to prevent such huge loss of lives?
The truth is that the Security Council has invested all its authority in the special envoy to seek the political negotiation that will end the conflict. We should all be fully behind that. When I was in New York for the recent General Assembly week, I hosted a special meeting on nutrition in Yemen. We continue to work to try to make the negotiations a success. That is where we have to put all our effort, because it is only with the end of the conflict that we can fully tackle the humanitarian crisis.
Some 17.8 million Yemenis have no reliable access to food and, as the Minister just told us, 8.4 million of them face extreme food shortages. What steps is the Department taking to ensure that vital UK aid can reach Yemenis in distress?
The £170 million that the United Kingdom is putting into Yemen in this financial year is currently feeding around 2.2 million people, including children. We continue to work on nutrition and sanitary issues, and on making sure that clean water is available. I repeat to the House that the most important thing is that the humanitarian support and efforts to gain access are only a sticking plaster for the wound; if the wound is to be fully closed, every effort must be made on the political track to end the conflict.
The UK can indeed be proud of our efforts on the humanitarian side, but I agree with the Minister that we need to do more on the political track. What are we actually doing now to sustain pressure on all parties to the conflict? In particular, what are we doing to build the coalition that we need in the Security Council to secure a new resolution that is relevant to the circumstances in Yemen today?
The consensus in the Security Council is that the best thing we can do is support the envoy, because a new resolution would either not get through or not be relevant. We do not want to waste any time on efforts away from the special envoy. While we were in New York, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary had a meeting with the relevant parties, and separately I met those in the coalition, as well as people representing those who have influence with the Houthis, because this is not a one-sided issue.
The biggest tragedy of Yemen is that ultimately it is a man-made disaster that is having this appalling impact on the local population. Will the Minister confirm how the UK Government will support efforts towards a political solution, which is the only solution to these issues?
We were very supportive of the efforts of special envoy Martin Griffiths to bring the parties together in Geneva recently, and we were very disappointed and concerned that the Houthi component did not attend those negotiations. Until the negotiations are fully engaged with by all sides, we cannot proceed. All efforts must be made to support the special envoy and get the negotiations back on track.
Yemen is bleeding to death. This could be the first time in modern history that an entire country has been reduced to famine and poverty by the actions, in part, of our allies. One hundred Members have signed a letter to the Prime Minister asking her to condemn further attacks on the port of Hodeidah. Will the Minister repeat today the Government’s commitment that they do not want to see any further action taken against the port, which would cause the death of a further quarter of a million people?
We have always been clear, first, that there is no military solution in Yemen, and secondly, that the port has to be kept open. There should not be action in relation to the port, either by those who might have mined the approaches to it or those who might seek to attack it, because humanitarian access remains crucial. Yemen is a tragedy of significant proportions, as the right hon. Gentleman knows. We are doing everything we can to find the political solution to end the conflict.
One of the major issues is access to finance and the soaring cost of basic commodities in Yemen. The UN special envoy, Martin Griffiths, has said that the best way to resolve Yemen’s humanitarian crisis is to fix the economy and stem a slide in the riyal. Are the UK Government participating in action on that matter?
Since July, the riyal has depreciated by some 20%. That, as the hon. Lady says, is putting up the prices of basic foodstuffs, which had already increased in recent years. Of course, in a war economy, people have made money: the Houthi have taxed goods and taken money from people instead of supplying goods. We are doing what we can to support the riyal, because some stability in the currency is essential. The UK is supporting that process, too.
Save the Children is warning that 5.2 million children in Yemen are at risk of famine; meanwhile, an estimated 350,000 children caught up in the conflict have contracted cholera since April last year. I am sure the Minister agrees that urgent action is needed. Will he inform the House what urgent steps his Department is taking to ensure that delivery of food and medicine is not hindered by warring parties for strategic gains, but instead reaches those who are in desperate need of it?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has met and spoken regularly with the Minister in the United Arab Emirates responsible for coalition efforts to ensure humanitarian access. We have spoken to those who have access to the Houthi and the areas that they control to make sure there are no blockages there. It is a conflict, and it is a tragedy that access to humanitarian aid is used as a weapon in that conflict. Only a negotiated solution can end the conflict and enable the humanitarian efforts, and we are making every effort to ensure that.
Kerala: Summer Floods
Our thoughts are with the people affected by flooding in India. The Indian Government are leading the response. We have supported the multi-donor Start Fund, which provided £250,000 to help the delivery of emergency assistance. This included the provision of emergency shelter and water purification and hygiene kits.
Members of the Keralan community across the UK are understandably aghast at recent events. Will the Minister say whether, in the light of this week’s report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Government will heed the advice of the world’s leading climate scientists to enable us to make the rapid, unprecedented and far-reaching transitions that will be needed to avoid similar crises in future?
We certainly welcome the report, and I hope the hon. Gentleman welcomes the Government’s commitment to contributing £5.8 billion between 2016 and 2020 to make a difference in this area. Since 2011, 47 million people have been helped to cope with the effects of climate change and 17 million have been helped to access clean energy, but there is more to do and we will do it.
Anyone who has been to Kerala knows it is a beautiful state with beautiful people. Has my hon. Friend had a chance to discuss with UK water companies their charity, WaterAid, and what they can do to help?
The Indian Government are of course leading on this, and I am sure that they will note my hon. Friend’s suggestion. He has clearly had the pleasure of visiting that beautiful part of India. I should say that Kerala is open again for tourism, and I know that the return of tourists would be welcomed.
The recent floods in Kerala and other natural disasters in the world tragically highlight the urgency of the global climate crisis. This week, the world’s leading climate scientists stated in a landmark UN report that we have just 12 years to keep global warming to a maximum 1.5º C, and the World Bank has already committed to ending upstream oil and gas projects by 2019. Can the Minister therefore explain what possible reasons there are for the UK to continue to fund fossil fuel use, particularly in countries that are already bearing the worst brunt of climate change?
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman welcomes the fact that that the UK is leading in terms of our commitment to end the use of coal. We are looking closely at the Powering Past Coal Alliance and leading an effort to get more countries to sign up to that alliance. The UK is showing strong leadership on that, and he should welcome it.
Freedom of Religion or Belief
The UK promotes and protects the right to freedom of religion or belief internationally. Through our UK Aid Connect scheme, up to £12 million will be available over the next four years for organisations to promote the building of freedom of religion or belief.
I thank the Minister for her response. Will she give us some information about what she will do to collect better data about religious freedom and minority belief freedom in the countries where her Department supports programmes?
Clearly the right hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. I am delighted to be able to tell him that we are working closely with colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on a project that will generate exactly that evidence on the persecution of religious minorities. The project’s long-term objective is to generate data to better inform international policymakers to promote freedom of religion or belief more effectively.
Religious literacy is crucial to understanding the way in which our policies affect developing countries. I am therefore glad that the FCO has relaunched its course on that, but it is only voluntary. What more can be done to encourage DFID staff to take up such courses?
I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend’s work as a Church Commissioner. She will be aware that the Prime Minister has recently appointed Lord Ahmad as her special envoy on freedom of religion or belief. In that role, he has the important job of ensuring that that is taken up as widely as possible.
The Minister may be aware of a case in Pakistan involving a young woman called Asia Bibi who, under blasphemy legislation, faces the possible fate of execution in that country this week. What representations can the Minister make, as a matter of the utmost urgency, to try to ensure that common sense prevails in the Pakistani courts in that case?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will immediately raise that case with my colleague Lord Ahmad and make sure that that representation is made forthwith.
Pakistan is one of the largest recipients of UK aid, so does the Minister agree that along with our aid should come an expectation that the recipient should do everything in their power to improve the protection of basic universal human rights?
I certainly think that, in his capacity as the Prime Minister’s special envoy on freedom of religion or belief, Lord Ahmad will be making the points that my right hon. Friend raises as a matter of priority.
The most recent report from the European Parliament intergroup on freedom of religion or belief and religious tolerance states:
“much of the world’s population is deprived of their right to freedom of religion or belief”.
What steps are the Department undertaking to ensure the protection of minority groups in Nigeria, as the Nigerian Government are reportedly unwilling to initiate forceful action?
The hon. Lady is right to raise the fact that three quarters of the world’s population live in countries with high levels of government restrictions on freedom of religion or belief. Nigeria’s constitution does guarantee that freedom. When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister recently met President Buhari she was able to raise that important issue, and I am glad the hon. Lady shares the ability to raise it in Parliament.
I feel the need to prompt the Minister. Nigeria is one of DFID’s top five recipient countries and Nigeria has been identified by both the European Parliament intergroup and the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom as a “country of concern” with regards to its poor record on upholding the right of freedom to express religion. So may I ask the Minister again to tell the House what actions her Department has in place to ensure that the Nigerian Government uphold the rights of religious minorities in the country?
The hon. Lady is right to raise this issue. I am sure she agrees that humanitarian assistance should always be distributed on the basis of need, disregarding any issues of race, religion and ethnicity. I assure her that we regularly raise this issue, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State did recently, and that there is a plan in place both at local and national level to address it.
DFID supports organisations that help Rohingya women and has committed £129 million to the crisis overall. A third of our recent £70 million allocation is being spent on protection services, including women’s centres, emergency nutrition and midwifery care and support for survivors of gender-based violence. We will continue to explore additional funding options.
Following what the UN referred to as a “frenzy of sexual violence” against Rohingya women and girls, surely the Secretary of State will agree that it is wholly unacceptable that protection services for gender violence have received only one third of the required funding under the UN’s joint response plan. What steps is his Department taking to fill this funding gap?
I have two things to say in response to the hon. Lady’s most appropriate question. First, we recognise that this appeal is underfunded. We are in the lead in relation to this and we urge other donors to come forward. Secondly, she should be aware of the care with which United Kingdom money has been used to support women in the circumstances that she has described: 30 child-friendly spaces; 19 women’s centres; and 19 sexual and reproductive health clinics. I have seen these at Kutupalong camp and I know how well used they are by women who need counselling and support. The United Kingdom has been very clear about the importance of this as part of the support that we have provided. [Interruption.]
Order. I remind the House very gently that we are discussing the plight of Rohingya women, which is one of the most egregious plights of any people anywhere in the world and should be treated with appropriate respect.
Hundreds of thousands of people have died in what has been widely regarded as ethnic cleansing. What assurances have the UK Government sought from the Myanmar Government that the Rohingya women who return will be safe, following the memorandum of understanding with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, and should they not include a promise of citizenship?
When we talk to any of those in the camps, it is quite clear that they will return to Myanmar/Burma only when they feel that it is safe to do so and when they are citizens and their citizenship has been accepted. At present, I do not think that we have any confidence that any women returning to Burma under any memorandum would be in that position. Until that situation changes, the refugees will need to stay, but it is essential that those issues are dealt with in time.
The fact-finding mission found that this was ethnic cleansing and sexual abuse. Rape was widely found. I thank the Minister for promising to seek assurance that that is being taken care of and that those women are being supported. Is there any more detail available on that, please?
The International Development Committee, which is led by the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), questioned me about that just a few weeks ago. We have details on the counselling and support that is being provided. The tragedy is that this will need to go on for some time. It seems likely that those in the camps will not be able to return soon. What is essential—the hon. Lady’s question is helpful in relation to this—is that the eye of the world does not go off this matter. The funding for the support that is needed must not be lost and people must not forget the Rohingya who are in the camps.
A large number of vulnerable Rohingya women and children still live in Rakhine province. What humanitarian assistance are the Government providing to those vulnerable women and girls?
My hon. Friend is correct: there is difficulty in gaining access to the Rakhine province. It has been possible for humanitarian agencies to get into only some of the province. We have sought to reshape our programme to make sure that more support is available to those who are still in Rakhine, and it should not be forgotten that they remain in a very vulnerable position.
These vulnerable Rohingya Muslims may be destined to spend many years as refugees in camps. In addition to the aid that has already been given, has there been any consideration of a diplomatic solution involving substantial up-front international support for refugees and for the wider region in Bangladesh to pump-prime economic and political stability?
We should always preface any remarks by expressing gratitude to the Government of Bangladesh for what they have been able to do for these most vulnerable people. Every effort is being given to the sort of diplomatic solution that will provide an answer, but it is clear from the actions of the Burma Government that this will take some time. My hon. Friend is right: we need to make sure that we keep caring for those in the camps for some period of time, because the very length of their stay will mean that they face new problems, rather than those from which they fled.
What support does the Department provide for Rohingya refugees who have suffered gender-based violence?
The support that we have provided has included counselling and making available people who are able to deal with children who have been traumatised over time. It is quite clear from talking to the aid agencies on my visit that there has been an improvement in people’s condition, but of course the true horror of what they have experienced can never truly be removed until they return home.
I hope the whole House will join me in sending our deepest condolences to those affected by the devastating situation in Indonesia. We have all seen the images of destruction and of people suffering, and the UK stands side by side with the people of Indonesia. As well as providing essential supplies and a team on the ground, the UK has now made up to £5 million available, including £2 million that will match funds raised by the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal. I thank the British public for their generosity.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that she will be using DFID’s existing budget to help the British overseas territories to rebuild after the devastating hurricanes?
If that sad event does occur, I have instructed my Department to ensure that our response in the overseas territories has a priority call on our DFID reserves—our non-ODA money. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence are also standing ready. We will deal with these situations as best we can, without having to make further demands on the public purse.
I agree with the hon. Lady. The Women and Equalities Committee is looking at the issue that she raises with regard to Northern Ireland, and that will be a very helpful piece of work. The hon. Lady is right; in fact, we have some opportunities with the international women’s conference that will be taking place in part in this Chamber—I thank Mr Speaker for allowing that—to send a clear message to everyone that women’s rights matter and that we will work together to ensure that they are upheld worldwide.
Order. There is far too much noise in the Chamber, with a lot of very loud private conversations. Can we have a bit of hush for a south-east London knight? I call Sir David Evennett.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that we are not just ensuring that the aid we provide is as effective as possible; we are introducing new tests to ensure that we are doing things that are also in the national interest. The chief economist has placed that in our aid allocation formula and we are also looking at ways of improving that.
Nutrition remains at the heart of the concerns that we have for feeding the most vulnerable. I had meetings in New York with those responsible for looking ahead to the next replenishment. The United Kingdom has always been a leader in this matter and we will remain so.
We are introducing a new programme to support our pre-independence Commonwealth veterans who have been living in poverty. There are about 7,000 of these individuals, to whom we owe an immense debt of gratitude. The new programme will ensure that they can live out the rest of their lives with their families in dignity.
Once again in New York, I took part in a special session at the United Nations devoted to the pressures on journalists, led by Amal Clooney and others. We were able to state very clearly our support for those Bangladeshi journalists. Representations have been made, and will continue to be made. I met the family, who were there.
Does my right hon. Friend welcome the fact that our Prime Minister is the first Prime Minister to visit Kenya in over 30 years? She committed to help to support the next generation of energetic, ambitious young Kenyans as they seek to build a more prosperous country in the years ahead.
I was absolutely delighted by the Prime Minister’s visit, and I congratulate my hon. Friend on her appointment as trade envoy to Kenya. If we want to eradicate global poverty, trade is part of the answer, and we are absolutely right to put that investment into Africa, as it will lever in an additional £4 billion to grow the economies of those developing nations.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—the UK is leading the world by hosting the summit this week, and it is at the forefront of tackling this heinous crime. I am delighted to announce to Parliament that there will be a further £6 million uplift to the illegal wildlife trade challenge fund, and more money for the international action against corruption programme to tackle illicit financial flows that are linked to the illegal wildlife trade.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern about the Palestinian Authority’s continuing naming of schools after terrorists and the payment of salaries to convicted murderers? Can we be sure that UK taxpayers are not facilitating payments?
My hon. Friend can be absolutely sure that we share his concern in relation to this. The matter is continually raised with the Palestinian Authority. There should be no incitement to terror and no incitement to violence. We make rigorously sure that no UK taxpayers’ money is spent on this.
The Prime Minister was asked—
Immediately after Prime Minister’s questions I, along with other Members of the House, will watch a parade by 120 members of the British Army to Parliament. They represent the breadth of the 50,000 regular and reserve Army personnel. This is an opportunity for us to thank them for their tireless work to keep our country safe.
This afternoon, I will host a reception for World Mental Health Day. I am delighted that this week the UK hosted the first ever global ministerial summit on mental health, with a landmark agreement to achieve equity for mental health.
This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House I shall have further such meetings later today.
The Polish community has long made a valuable contribution to Scottish society. My Polish constituent is a young man who has lived in Scotland since he was six, but when he applied for jobseeker’s allowance last month, he failed the habitual residence test. Even the Department for Work and Pensions cannot understand the Kafkaesque letter that he has been sent. Like the Windrush scandal, is this the shape of things to come for EU citizens in the United Kingdom?
As the hon. and learned Lady knows, as part of the negotiations with the European Union we have already come to agreements about the rights that will be available to those EU citizens who are already living in the United Kingdom. We have set out very clearly what will be the situation for those who come to the United Kingdom during the implementation period. I was able to update people a few weeks ago to make it clear that in a no-deal arrangement we will also ensure that we look after those EU citizens who have come and made their home here. As for the individual case, I am sure that the Department for Work and Pensions will look into that in some detail.
I thank my hon. Friend for highlighting the performing arts and the fact that there are some great performing arts to be seen around the country. She is a performing arts ambassador, and I congratulate her on her work. We are committed to supporting the UK’s tourism industry and spreading the wealth it produces across the country, as we set out in our tourism action plan.
We are providing funding for the performing arts throughout the country. That includes investing £78 million in a new theatre and arts complex, The Factory, which is a home for Manchester International Festival and will encourage international collaboration, investment and visitors, and £5 million in the redevelopment of Colston Hall, the south-west’s major concert venue, to make it fit for the 21st century. Performing arts are being encouraged around the whole country.
I am sure the whole House will join me in expressing our deepest sympathies to the people of Sulawesi in Indonesia following the earthquake and tsunami in which 1,500 people have died. We wish them well in the rebuilding of their communities. I also take this opportunity to thank all those officers and ratings in the Royal Navy who did so much to help during the emergency.
Today is World Mental Health Day, and today there are 5,000 fewer mental health nurses than there were in 2010. The Prime Minister said last week that austerity “is over”. When will austerity be over for mental health services?
First, I join the right hon. Gentleman in expressing our condolences to those who were affected by what happened in Indonesia; our thoughts are with them. I am pleased to say that the Department for International Development was able to respond to that, and I understand that the Disasters Emergency Committee appeal is now up to £10 million. As the right hon. Gentleman said, we were able to provide support in kind through the support that was available from our armed forces and, indeed, others. I commend all those who have been working so hard in that area.
The right hon. Gentleman raised the issue of mental health, and I am pleased he did, because this is a Government that are ensuring that mental health is given the attention that it needs. It is this Government who have ensured that there will be parity of esteem for mental health and physical health in the national health service, and it is this Government that are putting record levels of funding into mental health.
If the right hon. Gentleman is asking me, “Do we still need to do more on mental health?” I would say yes, we do. That is exactly why we are setting out further steps today, particularly to improve the mental health of children and young people. I am also very pleased that the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Jackie Doyle-Price), is taking on responsibility as the Minister for suicide prevention—the first time that a Government has appointed a Minister to such a post. This Government take mental health seriously. That is why we are putting record levels of funding into mental health.
It was a Labour amendment to the Health and Social Care Act 2012 that put parity of esteem on the face of the legislation. It was opposed by the right hon. Lady’s Government. If she thinks that mental health spending is going well, maybe she should have told the Health Secretary that, because this morning he said that it is
“still way off where we need to be”.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists has found that the income of mental health trusts in England is lower than it was six years ago, and children are being sent as much as 300 miles away for urgent treatment. This needs urgent action now.
People in every village, town and city know that violent crime is rising. Some 21,000 police officers have been cut, and 7,000 police community support officers have gone. When will austerity be over for the police?
I have just said that I think there is more for us to do on mental health, and as part of our long-term plan for the national health service we will be doing more for mental health. I remind the right hon. Gentleman that our plans for the national health service will see £394 million more a week going into our national health service.
The right hon. Gentleman then asked me about policing. Of course, this Government have made £460 million more available for policing in this current year, including the precept on council tax. If he is so concerned about funding for policing, why did the Labour party oppose that extra money?
If austerity is over for the police, the Prime Minister does not seem to have told the Police Federation, because it is currently taking the Government to court for failing to implement the decision of the independent pay review body. Our dedicated police officers and police community support officers deserve better than they get from this Government.
In the last year the Education Secretary has been rebuked four times by the statistics watchdog for making false claims about education funding. I know that the Prime Minister is a stickler for accuracy so, given her commitment to ending austerity, can she confirm that austerity is now over for all teachers, who will receive the independently recommended 3.5% pay rise?
The right hon. Gentleman talks about the police pay award. It represents the highest consolidated pay award since 2010. He then went on to talk about funding for schools. He knows the announcement that has been made in relation to the teachers’ pay award, but I remind him that school funding this year is at a record high. With the extra £1.3 billion that we have put in this year and next, per pupil funding is being protected in real terms. I recognise the pressures that schools are under, but I also recognise that 1.9 million more children are now in good and outstanding schools, compared with 2010, and part of that is the result of the reforms we have made to education, including free schools and academies which the Labour party would abolish.
The reality is that over half of teachers are getting another real-terms pay cut next year. They have been subject to eight years of pay freezes, with pay rises capped below inflation. It is no wonder that there is a chronic shortage of teachers and the Government have failed to hit their recruitment target.
The Conservative leader of Northamptonshire County Council said that it
“couldn’t cope with the levels of cuts”.
The Conservative leader of Somerset County Council said:
“I feel abandoned… there are no solutions coming.”
Will the Prime Minister listen to her own council leaders and end austerity, as she promised to do last week?
In fact, there are more teachers in our schools now, and we see more people applying to be teachers. I recognise the very hard work that our teachers put in day in, day out. The good results that our children are getting are the result of their hard work and that of their teachers.
The right hon. Gentleman refers to Northamptonshire County Council. Of course, the independent inspection was clear that failures at the council were not due to a lack of funding. We have backed councils in England: between 2015 and 2020, £200 billion are available to deliver the local services that their communities want. We will see an increase of £1.3 billion in the money available to councils over the next two years, extra money for social care was announced at our party conference—councils have access to over £9.6 billion of dedicated funding in relation to that—and there is a £31 million increase for rural services. Yes, we have had to make tough decisions, and yes, councils have been asked to make tough decisions. The reason we had to do that was the state of the public finances and the economy that we were left by the Labour Government. People have made sacrifices and they need to know that their hard work has paid off. Yes, better times are ahead, under a Conservative Government.
It might be a good idea if the Prime Minister took a few minutes out of her very busy day to listen to some teachers and hear about the stress they are going through and the number of newly qualified teachers who feel that they cannot carry on anymore and leave the profession that they love.
The National Audit Office has found that local government funding from central Government has been cut by 49% since 2010, and next year Government funding for councils is going to be cut by a further £1.3 billion. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has said that 75% of the social security cuts announced in 2015 have yet to come into effect; £2.7 billion will be cut from working-age benefits next year alone. Can the Prime Minister confirm that this swingeing austerity on the lowest-paid and the disabled people in our society will now end, as she said last week?
What we see in the changes that we are putting forward in relation to welfare reform is encouraging people into work and making sure that when they get into work, work pays. I might also say to the right hon. Gentleman that there are £2.4 billion of unclaimed benefits under the legacy system of the Labour party that will be paid to people under universal credit—700,000 people getting the benefits that they are entitled to under universal credit for the future. He asks me about what this Government are doing in relation to the end of austerity, and I have been very clear that there are better times ahead for people. We will see debt falling and we will see support for our public services going up. Austerity is being brought to an end. What is not being brought to an end is fiscal responsibility.
The poorest third of households will lose £745 a year if these cuts go ahead. Just this week, the Equality and Human Rights Commission—and the Prime Minister should listen to it—has reported that the situation facing those with disabilities has got worse and their rights are being violated in our society. After eight years of painful austerity, poverty is up, homelessness and deaths on our streets are up, living standards down, public services slashed, and 1 million elderly are not getting the care that they need. Wages have been eroded, and all the while, billions were found for tax giveaways for big corporations and the super-rich. The Prime Minister declared that she is ending austerity, but unless the Budget halts the cuts, increases funding to public services and gives our public servants a decent pay rise, then is not the claim that austerity is over simply a great big Conservative con?
Actually, wages are going up; we have increased the national living wage as well; there are 1 million fewer people in absolute poverty under this Government; and under universal credit, 1 million disabled households will get around £110 a month more as a result. The right hon. Gentleman talks about cuts. I will tell him about some cuts that have been of benefit to working people in this country. What about the £18.5 billion of income tax cuts that have helped household incomes under this Government? What about the cuts in their household bills that 11 million households will see as a result of our energy price cap? And what about the £46 billion of cuts through freezing fuel duty, which has made a real difference to people’s lives? But we know what would really hurt working people. Labour’s plans would cost £1 trillion—£1,000 billion of people’s money. Uncontrolled borrowing, spiralling taxes, working people paying the price of Labour—yet again, Labour taking us back to square one.
As always, I am determined to find plenty of time for Back Benchers.
I thank my hon. Friend for raising what is an important issue for many parents. We are concerned that some summer-born and prematurely born children whose parents choose to delay their entry to school until compulsory school age may be missing essential teaching in a reception year. I understand that the Department for Education is looking at how best to make changes without creating unintended consequences elsewhere in the system. It is important that it looks at it in that sense. The Minister from the Department will be very happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss this issue.
As you well know, Mr Speaker, today is World Mental Health Day. I want to congratulate the Prime Minister on her appointment of a Minister for suicide prevention. In Scotland, we have our own Minister for Mental Health and look forward to working closely with the new UK Minister on this important issue. Does the Prime Minister agree with me that we must all work to eradicate policies and circumstances that lead people to believe that suicide is their only option?
It is right that we take the issue of suicide as seriously as we have done—in particular, the concerns raised about the number of young men who commit suicide. People in a range of different circumstances find themselves in a position where they think about committing suicide. We must do everything we can to ensure that people are prevented from committing suicide and that support is given to people in those circumstances.
I am glad the Prime Minister agrees with me, because, as reported by The Independent, nearly one in every two women taking part in the UK Government’s work capability assessment say they have attempted suicide after or during the process. A series of secret internal inquiries reveal that Conservative Ministers were repeatedly warned of the policy’s shortcomings. Will the Prime Minister commit today to ensuring that her new Minister for Suicide Prevention looks at the impact of her Government’s own social security policies and at long last scraps the appalling work capability assessment?
First, the assessments were introduced by a previous Government. It is important that we get the assessments right. It is right that we are encouraging people into the workplace and wanting to ensure that people who are able to be in the workplace are given the support that enables them to do that. That is what we want to do. It is right that we maintain assessments. Of course we look at the impact and quality of those assessments. That is work the Department for Work and Pensions does on a regular basis. It is important that we are undertaking those assessments.
I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that, since the financial crisis, we have been looking at the design of the regulatory system to ensure that we have built one of the most robust regulatory systems in the world. It is designed specifically to ensure financial stability and protect taxpayers.
We have introduced a number of measures relating to the responsibility of those at the top of organisations. In 2016, we brought into force the senior managers and certification regime to hold those the top personally responsible for wrongdoing. Legislation was introduced alongside that regime that ensures that bosses whose reckless misconduct causes their institution to fail face up to seven years in prison. Although these reforms are of course very recent and it will take further time before we see the full impact of them, the FCA issued total fines of £229 million last year against individuals and firms who have broken the FCA’s rules. I can reassure my hon. Friend that we will remain focused on ensuring that we build a fairer and more balanced banking system and, if there is more that needs to be done, on looking at what we should be doing.
In relation to those people who are being moved on to universal credit as part of managed migration, we are of course undertaking that. It will start later next year and will be done initially on a small-scale basis to ensure that we get that right. We are putting in transitional protections for those people so that people who are moved on to universal credit as part of the process will not see any reduction—they will be protected.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this issue, because we do not want to see anybody having to sleep on the streets. That is why we have committed to ensuring that we eradicate and end rough sleeping by 2027 and halve it by 2022. That is why we are supporting various projects across the country to do that. I recognise his point about local authorities, their involvement, their need to build capacity and capability in their teams to ensure that they can deal with this and the role that the voluntary sector can play, too. We are investing more than £3 million a year with voluntary sector groups to train and advise local authority teams so that they are able to address these issues. We want to ensure that rough sleeping becomes a thing of the past.
I absolutely recognise the importance of the fishing industry across the UK and particularly in Scotland. I reassure the right hon. Gentleman that as we are going through these negotiations, we will be very clear that once EU rules no longer apply to the United Kingdom, we will be an independent coastal state and we will be making those decisions. We will control access to our waters and we will be seeking to gain a fairer share of quotas.
Absolutely, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. Obviously, the long-term plan for the national health service is being developed by the national health service in conjunction with clinicians and people at a local level. It is absolutely clear that we need to ensure that we recognise the importance of those community services. As my hon. Friend says, it is this Government who are not only putting in place a long-term plan to support the national health service but also that longer-term funding, which will see the biggest cash boost ever in the history of the national health service.
As I think the hon. Gentleman will know, modern slavery is an issue that I have taken a particular interest in and worked on. I am proud of the impact that our Modern Slavery Act 2015 is having, but, sadly, we continue to see people being effectively enslaved in this country. We are seeing more cases in which criminals are prosecuted, but we need to ensure that support is available. I certainly commend the Co-op, which he referenced, and other businesses that are working to help people who have been victims of modern slavery. My right hon. Friend the International Development Secretary tells me that when she chaired a session on modern slavery at the UN General Assembly, the role of the private sector was given particular prominence. We will continue to do all we can to ensure that we are dealing with modern slavery.
It is obvious that the biggest task facing the Prime Minister this winter is, first, to obtain a compromise agreement with the other 27 European Governments on the terms of our withdrawal, and then to win the approval of a majority in this House for that same agreement, or something like it, in a meaningful vote on the terms of our departure. Does she equally accept that the maths makes it obvious that that majority can only be obtained if the agreement retains the support of the pro-European Conservative Back Benchers in this House and wins the support of a significant number of Labour pro-European Back Benchers? That would reveal that the hard-line Eurosceptic views of the Bennites on the Labour Front Bench and the right-wing nationalists in our party are a minority in this Parliament. Will she therefore proceed courageously on that basis in the formidable task that lies ahead of her?
We are working to ensure that we get a good agreement for the United Kingdom—an agreement that delivers on the vote that the people took in the referendum to leave the European Union, to bring an end to the jurisdiction of the European Court, to bring an end to free movement and to bring an end to sending vast sums of money every year to the European Union and that does it in way that protects jobs and ensures that there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. We are working for that deal, and when we come back with a deal, I would hope that everybody across the whole House will put the national interest first and not only look at a good deal for the future of the United Kingdom, but remember that having given the decision on whether we stay in the European Union to the British people, and the British people having voted to leave, it is our duty to ensure that we leave.
It is very good of the hon. Gentleman to raise that issue. I pay tribute to other Members across the House who have put clear emphasis on this issue and ensured that, in Baby Loss Awareness Week and outside it, we recognise the tragedies that sadly take place and the circumstances that are faced by too many families in this country. I am very happy to pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and the amazing work that they have done in raising the funds that he has referred to. We do not want anybody to have to face and deal with this, but out of such a terrible tragedy has come the good of that fundraising, which can help others. I hope that his constituents are proud of what they have done.
In Somerset, we have been working for years to pay down the huge debts left by the Lib Dems when they last ran county hall, which means that funding for many essential services is now being withdrawn. Will the Prime Minister meet me and Somerset colleagues to discuss this challenge and will she look favourably on our bid to fully retain business rates from April 2019?
I understand that the issue of business rates and the bids to which my hon. Friend has referred, from Somerset and others, are currently being assessed. A decision will be announced alongside the local government finance settlement later this year. I can tell my hon. Friend that I have already received representations from a Somerset Member of Parliament on the issue, but I am sure that Ministers in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government will be willing to meet him and others to discuss it further. I am sure that they will be happy to sit down and discuss the details.
The hon. Gentleman has raised the issue of debt, and it is an important issue to raise. What the Government are doing is seeing that we will actually—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman does not need to ask me the question if he has the figure already. What the Government are doing is ensuring that debt is going to fall, and, crucially, we have seen a reduction in our deficit of three quarters under this Conservative Government. The hon. Gentleman should not look quite so pleased with himself when he starts to think about what a Labour Government would do to our debt in the future, which is take us back.
The 120 soldiers who will march through the north door of Westminster Hall straight after PMQs are actually representing the 3,000 who are currently deployed in 28 countries around the world. I am delighted that the Prime Minister—and, I hope, colleagues from across the House as well as staff from the Palace—will be there to welcome them and thank them for all that they do. Can we at that time remember these people—First, the families without whose support their deployment would not be possible; secondly, those who are returning from overseas, injured both mentally and physically; and thirdly, those comrades who will never return?
My hon. Friend puts his point extremely well. Of course we are proud of everything that our servicemen and women do, and I, and other Members, will be pleased to welcome those servicemen and women and give thanks to them in the way that we can here in the House. However, my hon. Friend is absolutely right: we should never forget the families of those servicemen and women, and we should ensure that we support them. We should also recognise the importance of supporting those who return with injuries—some, of course, physical, and some mental—and of ensuring that we recognise both physical and mental injuries. We should never forget those who have laid down their lives for our freedom and security.
The hon. Lady has raised a very important issue. As she will know, the question of plastics is one that the Government are taking extremely seriously. Our 25-year environment plan includes a pledge to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste such as microbeads and straws. There are shortcomings in the current regulations relating to plastic recycling and how we incentivise better packaging designs and material choices. We will consult on our proposals later in the year, and we will of course consider any ideas from Members about how we can ensure that we are dealing with the scourge of plastic.
The hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) has just won an award for her commendable work on speech and language services, so she should be a celebrated denizen of the House. I call Rebecca Pow.
Thank you so much, Mr Speaker; I will save a question about that for later.
As the Prime Minister will know, the Agriculture Bill comes to the Chamber today, and it presents a great opportunity to rethink our land use policy and everything about the way we run our land. Does the Prime Minister agree that it demonstrates that this Government are leading the way in supporting a sustainable biodiverse environment and supporting our farmers and food producers and our rural communities—especially those in Taunton Deane?
I congratulate my hon. Friend and commend her on all the work she does on issues relating to the environment. She is absolutely right: leaving the European Union and the common agricultural policy enables us to take another look at our support for farmers and their use of the land, and as we do that to address issues such as the impact on the environment. It means we are able to ensure not only that we see the sustainable environment and biodiversity to which my hon. Friend refers, but that we are a generation that leaves the planet in a better state than we found it.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the need for us to ensure that we get freight off our roads and on to the railways. There are real benefits in doing that, both for the environment and in relation to congestion, and we are investing more money in the strategic freight network. I will have to look into the specific proposal the hon. Gentleman has raised, but I can assure him that the principle of ensuring we are encouraging freight on to our railways and off our roads is a good one.
The House will have heard the Japanese Prime Minister say that Britain would be welcomed into the trans-Pacific partnership with open arms. Does the Prime Minister agree that post-Brexit it would be wonderful if our country could meet Japan’s embrace?
Obviously I have spoken to the Japanese Prime Minister about this issue, as I have spoken to other Prime Ministers of countries involved in the comprehensive and progressive agreement for trans-Pacific partnership. I am very pleased that they want to welcome us into that trade agreement with open arms, and we stand ready to do exactly that.
I am sure that we are all concerned about the particular case the hon. Lady raises. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health will be happy to meet her to discuss it and look at the issues it raises. We want to ensure that support is available for vulnerable people, particularly vulnerable young people.
The effect of the recent tsunami, earthquake and volcano at Palu in Indonesia’s Sulawesi islands has been devastating, and the welcome response from our embassy and Department for International Development includes two RAF A400M aircraft and supplies, as well as a team of humanitarian workers who are out there now. “Teman yang membantu saat dibutuhkan adalah teman sebenarnya”: a friend in need is a friend indeed. Will my right hon. Friend join me in sending our condolences to President Jokowi, and our thanks to British citizens and JCB for their help, and will she encourage DFID to do even more, including extending the matching of funding from the Disasters Emergency Committee Indonesia tsunami appeal?
My hon. Friend raises again the important issue that was referred to by the Leader of the Opposition earlier. Of course our condolences go to all those who have lost loved ones in the terrible disaster that has taken place, and to those who have been affected by it in whatever way. We commend all those who have been working there to bring support, aid and help to those who are affected, and we recognise the significant contribution that has been made by British volunteers and companies and by our armed forces. The Department for International Development has already made some commitments in relation to match-funding the money that the Disasters Emergency Committee is raising, but it will of course continue to look at what support it can give.
I can say to the hon. Lady that issues relating to any particular concerns or allegations that have been raised in the Conservative party are properly investigated and considered through the new code of conduct that we have introduced. Every complaint that has been made is being or has been investigated, and appropriate action has been taken, including in some cases suspending and expelling members. We are also taking further steps. We are working in conjunction with TellMAMA, making diversity training more widely available and improving how local associations deal with complaints. There should be no place in this country for discrimination, and it is right that as a political party we are working to ensure that we take action when any complaints are made about those within our party.
In March, colleagues and I met the Prime Minister to discuss sleep-in shifts, and I thank her very much for her focus. I appreciate that Ministers are still in discussions since the Court of Appeal ruled not to uphold the Unison case, but in the absence of clarity, some local authorities are now reverting to paying a single through-the-night rate, whereas we have rightly said that people should be paid the national minimum wage. Please will the Prime Minister and her Ministers tackle this as urgently as possible? Also, I am not sure that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is interpreting the Court of Appeal’s ruling either.
My hon. Friend raises an important issue, which she and others have raised on a number of occasions in the House. The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care is looking urgently at the issue, but as I understand it, a case relating to this matter is going to the Supreme Court, and we will of course have to consider any outcome of those court proceedings.
In a few minutes’ time, 57 Members of all political parties will be launching an important new report on acquired brain injury. This is a hidden epidemic that affects more than 1.3 million people in our country. On average, every primary school class in this country will have at least one child who has a brain injury, and they are sometimes unaware of this.
The good news is that if we get good rehabilitation to every single person affected, we can save the NHS £5 billion a year. Will the Prime Minister meet with me and others involved in the group? And I do mean her: I understand that she often wants other Ministers to meet people on her behalf, and that she is very busy, but this affects our prisons, our schools, our armed forces and the whole of Government. We can save lives, and give people a better quality of life, but we can only do it if we join up the dots.
The hon. Gentleman speaks with passion about this issue, and rightly so. It is an important issue, and I will ensure that he is able to bring that information appropriately to Ministers. He makes a point that covers not only this issue but other issues in Government too. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr Lidington), is working to ensure that on issues such as this we see joined-up working between Government Departments to ensure that the right action is being taken. [Interruption.]
The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) is chuntering from a sedentary position, “Meet with you.” It seems to be his preferred mantra of the day, and doubtless it will now be recorded in the Official Report.
Does the Prime Minister share my concern that drugs-related deaths in Kent have doubled in the past three years and that the rise in county lines operations means that there are now 48 separate gang operations there? Does she agree that it is important for the Home Office to put more priority on ensuring that we win the war on drugs?
My hon. Friend raises an important issue. I understand that a new co-ordination centre is being set up to ensure that the work on county lines that the National Crime Agency has been leading is properly integrated with the work of the forces involved. I am pleased to say that we saw a recent case in Birmingham in which an individual was sentenced to 14 years for having effectively enslaved three children to sell drugs for them as part of this county lines approach after having pleaded guilty to charges of modern slavery. We recognise that the problem is growing, and the Home Office is taking action.
Nearly 70% of all children excluded from school have special educational needs or a disability, and the reason cited for the exclusion of a fifth of all excluded children is “other”—a category for which no further information is held. Does the Prime Minister agree that this unfolding national crisis is totally unacceptable? Will she commit to stopping the use of that category, which encourages off-rolling in our schools? Will she press Ofsted to ensure that its new framework supports and encourages inclusive schools and an education for all our children?
We want to ensure that every child is in the right school setting for them. For many children with special educational needs that will mean a mainstream school, but for others that will be in a special school. I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s point about exclusion, about which we do have concerns. That is why a review of exclusions is being undertaken by my former colleague the previous Member for Crewe and Nantwich, who took a particular interest in this area as Children’s Minister, and we will look carefully at the results of the review.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In answer to a question about school funding, the Prime Minister repeated the statistic about 1.9 million children being in good or outstanding schools that was proven not necessarily the full truth only this week following investigation by the shadow Secretary of State for Education. The UK Statistics Authority has also proven the number not to be true. Will you advise, Mr Speaker?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her perspicacity and her fleetness of foot in raising this matter immediately after Prime Minister’s questions. As the House will know, I have many roles here, but they do not include that of “truth commissioner”. Each Member is responsible for the accuracy of what he or she says in the House, and if a Member, including a Minister, thinks that he or she has erred, it is that Member’s responsibility to correct the record. Meanwhile, the hon. Lady has put her thoughts on record, and she will have to content herself with that for now.
The day would not be complete without a point of order from Mr Peter Bone.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Unusually in Prime Minister’s questions—or at any time in the House—a hon. Member held up a placard with a slogan on it. What was coincidental is that I understand that a photographer, to whom I am sure you had given permission, was taking photographs from the Gallery above me. I wonder whether you would investigate that coincidence, Mr Speaker.
That is a coincidence. The House photographer was working in the Gallery, but I did not note of what the House photographer took pictures. More particularly, as the hon. Gentleman has raised a perfectly proper point, the Chair has to judge in the circumstances of the time whether it is best to intervene or simply to allow matters to proceed. I felt that the hon. Member for Blyth Valley (Mr Campbell) might have, as it were, luxuriated in the lather of further attention if I had commented on the matter, but he was behaving in a mildly disorderly manner. As he knows, I am a little concerned that his propensity to consume very hot curry might be encouraging him in this somewhat untoward behaviour, from which I hope he might desist when he gets a bit older—he is only a young, new Member.
We will leave it there for now, but I am sure that the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), who regards his colleagues and those who work in the service of the House highly, would not cast aspersions on the integrity of a House Officer and, as it happens, a superb photographer—[Interruption.] Oh Mr Campbell, you must compose yourself; we are at an early stage in our proceedings.
Railways (Franchises) Bill
Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)
Tim Farron, supported by Sir Edward Davey and Tom Brake, presented a Bill to require the Secretary of State to terminate a rail passenger services franchise agreement in certain circumstances; to repeal section 25 of the Railways Act 1993; to make provision for local franchising authorities in England; and for connected purposes.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 23 November, and to be printed (Bill 271).
Criminal Records (Childhood Offences)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision about the criminal records of persons aged under 18 on the day an offence was committed; and for connected purposes.
I am bringing forward this Bill to highlight the need for reform of the rules in England and Wales on the disclosure of offences committed in childhood. I became involved in the issue after being approached separately by two of my constituents. Minor incidents during their teenage years, one leading to a caution and another to a police warning, were showing up on their Disclosure and Barring Service checks and causing risk-averse employers to turn them down for work in healthcare and schools.
We have one of the most punitive approaches in the world to childhood criminal records, and the case for change is strong. Support for reform has come from many quarters, including the Select Committee on Justice, the Ministry of Justice’s Charlie Taylor review, the Law Commission, and a number of charities and campaigning organisations. The system has been extensively litigated on several occasions and was ruled to be unlawful by the Court of Appeal, and a Supreme Court judgment is imminent. Whether the Government win their case or not, the current approach is not working, and change is needed.
Convictions can potentially become spent, meaning that they no longer have to be declared to employers and do not appear on basic criminal records checks, but rehabilitation periods can be lengthy and some types of conviction can never become spent. Even spent convictions and cautions continue to appear on standard and enhanced DBS checks, which are accessible to an expanding list of employers and organisations, including the care sector, the NHS, schools and financial regulators. Some cautions and convictions can be filtered from a standard and enhanced check, meaning that they no longer appear, but the filtering system is limited. If a person has committed two offences, no matter how minor, they will not be filtered, and there is a long list of offences that can never be filtered. In one of the cases considered in the recent Supreme Court litigation, a boy hit a school bully and was charged with actual bodily harm. ABH is an offence that cannot be filtered, so that will appear on his DBS record for life.
A key problem is that we have no distinct criminal records system for children. Apart from some limited differences providing for slightly shorter rehabilitation periods and other timeframes, children are subject to the full rigours of the disclosure system that I have outlined. Records relating to under-18 offences are retained for life. I believe that the childhood criminal records system in England and Wales is anchoring children to their past and preventing them from moving on from their mistakes. It is acting as a barrier to employment, education and housing. It is therefore working against rehabilitation, undermining a core purpose of the youth justice system. The current rules also perpetuate inequality. The Government’s race disparity audit concluded that children from a black and minority ethnic background are sadly more likely to end up with a criminal record. A system that is unduly penal in its treatment of such records has a harder and more disproportionate effect on BME communities. Similar points can be made about children who have spent time in care.
A report by the Standing Committee for Youth Justice examined the treatment of childhood criminal records in 16 comparable jurisdictions. Ours was the most punitive of all those examined, including every one of the US states considered in the report. Children in England and Wales are more likely to receive a criminal record and, according to the charity Unlock, the effect of that record is more profound and lasts longer than anywhere else in Europe. We need a fairer, more proportionate and flexible system that protects the public without unduly harming people’s opportunity to change and turn their lives around. We need wide-ranging reform, not a piecemeal response to losing a court case.
I acknowledge that children who commit very serious crimes should be excluded from the reforms, but careful consideration should be given to where to draw the line. With that caveat, a new distinct system for childhood criminal records could include the following: first, it could reduce the period before an offence can become spent; secondly, it could restrict the circumstances in which police intelligence relating to events in childhood can be disclosed; thirdly, it could scrap the rule that provides that someone with more than one offence can never have their offences filtered out of a DBS check; and, fourthly, it could reduce the list of offences that are never eligible to be filtered from such a check.
Even some offences that sound serious can result from relatively minor episodes. For instance, a child who pushes over another child in the playground and takes their phone could technically be guilty of robbery. Other reforms that should be considered include the introduction of a discretionary system for filtering those offences that are deemed to be too serious for automatic filtering, with an independent review process. I appreciate the concern about introducing a discretionary, and hence administrative, element to the system, and the cost and time that that could involve, but both Scotland and Northern Ireland include such an element in their legal systems, and it could really help in hard cases when the context in which the offence was committed can show it in a completely different light from how it first appears.
A further reform that has been floated is a provision for the deletion of childhood offences from police computers altogether, if certain conditions are met, perhaps along similar lines to the judicial rehabilitation process that operates in France. I know that that sort of change would give peace of mind to many who feel that their lives have been ruined by their childhood convictions.
I fully accept that those who commit criminal offences in childhood should face prosecution and punishment. If they have the capacity, they must face the consequences of their actions. But, except in cases of really serious criminal offences, I just do not believe that it is fair for people to have their entire lives blighted by the poor judgments and mistakes that they made in childhood. The sad fact is that many of us make bad choices and foolish decisions when we are young. Thankfully, for the vast majority of us that does not result in involvement with the criminal justice system, but for those children who do end up with convictions, it should not mean a life sentence.
Many people in that situation have the potential to make a big success of their lives and contribute positively to our economy, public services and society, but they are being held back by convictions, cautions or warnings for minor offences committed many years ago when they were completely different people from the adults they have now become, and those offences should have no relevance for the careers that they now wish to pursue. The situation can be a cause of shame, anxiety and distress. People’s past is robbing them of hope for their future. Putting up unnecessary barriers that deter or prevent people from working in sectors such as education, the NHS, social care or the City means that the country is losing out on real talent and energy. I have felt genuinely inspired by what constituents have told me about how they have turned their lives around. They are studying at university or doing an apprenticeship—they are aspiring to a better life.
I am introducing the Bill because I believe that if we are here to do anything in this Chamber, it is to ensure that this country is a place where people have opportunity. We are here to make sure that the constituents we represent have the chance to get on and make a success of their lives—to go as far as their talents and hard work will take them. If we are going to be serious about giving people a chance in life, that should include giving them a second chance. Lord Trimble once said:
“Just because you have a past, doesn’t mean you can’t have a future”.
The reforms that I am advocating would help to remedy a grave injustice in our legal system. I commend the Bill to the House.
Question put and agreed to.
That Theresa Villiers, Victoria Prentis, Sir Bernard Jenkin, Mr Nigel Evans, Mr Iain Duncan Smith, Dr Phillip Lee, Mr David Lammy, David Hanson, Kate Green, Liz Saville Roberts, Jim Shannon and Sir Edward Davey present the Bill.
Theresa Villiers accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 26 October, and to be printed (Bill 272).
I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the names of the representatives of the official Opposition.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
We are lucky in all four nations of the United Kingdom to have the best farmers in the world producing the best food in the world. This, the first comprehensive agriculture Bill for five decades, will provide those farmers with a new platform to modernise agriculture; to be able to produce, sell and export more food; and, at last, to receive the rewards that they deserve for their environmental work and the other public goods that they provide.
I am grateful for the enormous amount of hard work that has gone into the preparation of the Bill. I am grateful to the civil servants at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and I am grateful to those non-governmental organisations that contributed to our consultation paper “Health and Harmony”. Above all, I am grateful to our farmers, who are Britain’s backbone and on whom we are reliant for the food that we enjoy and for the health of our rural economy and society. Every measure in the Bill is designed to ensure that our farmers receive the support that they deserve to give us the healthy food that we enjoy and the beautiful rural environment on which we all depend.
In the course of his remarks, will my right hon. Friend reassure me that the Bill will be a vehicle for the support of common land, which accounts for 20% of our areas of special scientific interest and nearly 40% of open access, but which is nevertheless the subject of fragile traditional systems?
My right hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to meet some farmers who farm common land in the Lake district, and the particular work that they and others who farm common land do, to ensure both that traditional agricultural methods continue and that environmental benefits survive and are enhanced, is critical. We can provide for them with enhanced methods of support.
In April this year, the Secretary of State said that food production is “ultimately about health”, and I agree with him. That being the case, will he explain why he has not listed public health as one of the outcomes in clause 1? Will he think again about putting public health right at the heart of the Bill and his policies?
It is crucial that we all recognise that food production in this country is critical to the improvement of public health. My Department is working with the Department of Health and Social Care and others to ensure that, not only in this Bill but in other measures that we take, we put the importance of improving public health at the heart of everything that we do. The hon. Lady will be familiar with the actions that we have already taken on air quality, and she will also know that we are launching a food strategy, the first aspect of which I announced at the Conservative party conference last week: measures to ensure that we deal effectively with food waste and that healthy and nutritious food is provided to those who need it.
The Secretary of State was just speaking about the commons, and many of the farmers on the commons are sheep farmers. Would he care to say whether the report in The Times that large numbers of sheep will have to be slaughtered in the event of no deal is correct?
The Times is a great newspaper of record, but I did not recognise today’s report. Sheep do have to be slaughtered eventually to ensure that upland farmers and sheep farmers more broadly can get a fair price for the sheepmeat they produce. Indeed, our Bill has specific provisions to ensure that all farmers get a fair price in the market and that we can intervene where necessary to safeguard their economic interests.
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
Will my right hon. Friend give way?
I will give way first to my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk) and then to my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne).
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is right to highlight the important role of farmers. I have met many of my local farmers and other quality food producers, and the question they have put to me in recent weeks is how will the new regime enable them to compete against often cheaper and often lower quality imports?
This Government have emphasised that we will ensure that the high environmental and animal welfare standards of which we are so proud and which our farmers uphold are defended. We will not enter into trade or other agreements that undercut or undermine the high standards on which British agriculture’s reputation depends.
My right hon. Friend is being generous in giving way. I congratulate him on his opening remarks. Speaking as a farmer and for the many farmers I represent in my constituency, we are heartened to hear that he is putting farmers front and forward in the Bill. Further to his response to our hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), will he elaborate on the extent to which food security will be improved by the Bill, to ensure that we protect a viable agricultural sector in this country?
Food security is vital. Throughout the history of the United Kingdom, food security has depended on both quality domestic production and access to food from other markets. Some 60% of our food, and 75% of the food capable of being grown or reared on our shores, comes from the United Kingdom, but of course we also have access to food from other nations, and it is vital that we continue to do so. The Government’s approach as we leave the European Union is designed to ensure both that we have the best possible access to European markets—I am sure that the House knows that we import more than we export to the EU—but that we take opportunities for our farmers to secure new markets. Critically—I am sure the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) will be interested to hear this—the sheepmeat sector not only has significant exposure to the EU, but benefits from trade deals with the middle east and the far east, where there is a growing market for the high-quality lamb and mutton that we produce in this country. Leaving the EU therefore gives us an opportunity not just to maintain our existing trading links, but to expand them.
Does the Secretary of State not accept that, as we approach Brexit, there are concerns about food shortages and barriers to trade and to imports that may be followed by an open market situation where agriculturalists and farmers are subjected to low-price competition and perhaps questions about quality? Those investing in agriculture will face both demands for greater production and intense competition, and will that not create real problems for the industry?
I absolutely take on board the hon. Gentleman’s points, but we have some of the most productive, commercially successful and progressive farmers in this country ready to take advantage of both new markets and increasing demand among UK consumers and UK producers for high-quality UK produce. Supermarkets are often criticised in this House, but I think it is notable that UK supermarkets, from the Co-op to Waitrose, are increasingly responding to the demand from UK consumers for UK-sourced produce.
Is it not true that the high standards we have in this country and some of the niche products we produce are what make our exports so attractive, so the Bill, by creating a greener agricultural system and rewarding farmers for doing the right thing in managing our environment for the long run, is good not only for our economy, our environment and our people, but for trade?
My hon. Friend makes the case brilliantly. Members of the House will be familiar with the work of the Soil Association, which under its current leader, Helen Browning, manages to secure export markets for high-quality British pigmeat in Germany and beyond on the basis of doing precisely what my hon. Friend describes: meeting demand for high-quality organic produce and trading on the basis of the United Kingdom’s reputation for high environmental standards.
I am happy to give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Chris Davies), then my right hon. Friends the Members for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) and for Wokingham (John Redwood), and then my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston).
Order. The approach the Secretary of State is taking is most engaging, but it is not necessary for him to conduct an orchestra in proceeding with the debate, nor is it necessary to give a precise chronological guide to his intended order of taking interventions. Nevertheless, it is a notable eccentricity, which the House might enjoy. I call Sir Hugo Swire.
I am most grateful to you, Mr Speaker, as I think you have just given me an earlier slot than my right hon. Friend was indicating so effortlessly, like Herbert von Karajan.
My right hon. Friend just talked about supermarkets’ desire to stock more British and locally sourced products, which if true is manifestly a good thing. Will he commit to conducting a root and branch overhaul of food labelling and the country of origin system, which is currently misleading and has often been abused? The British consumer deserves to know where food is produced and where it is packaged and not to be misled by labelling.
My right hon. Friend makes a good point. Traceability and knowing the provenance of our food are vital. Outside the European Union, we can reform our food labelling system so that we have greater honesty about where our food comes from. He gives me an opportunity to say also that, as the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley), made clear yesterday, we are looking urgently at how we reform labelling to ensure that the safety of the consumer is guaranteed. Recent tragic events underline the need for action, and we will act.
Why does schedule 3 give too wide-ranging powers to Welsh Ministers to offer financial support to food production and food-related businesses that are denied to England? Will my right hon. Friend not speak for England? He is England’s Agriculture Minister. Surely he can trust himself with those important powers. Does he not understand that we really do want more food production domestically and locally?
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for making two important points. First, at the beginning of the Bill we stress that grants can be made by any Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to improve food productivity in the United Kingdom, but we have also made provisions so that the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Assembly can follow their own policies in their devolved Administrations in tune with the principle of respecting the devolution settlement across the United Kingdom. I regret that the Scottish Government have not taken advantage of such provisions, despite repeated lobbying from Members of Parliament who represent Scottish farming constituencies. I hope that the Scottish Government and the excellent Minister, Fergus Ewing, will pay attention to the demands from my hon. Friends, who have been crystal clear that the Bill provides a greater degree of clarity and certainty about food production and the environment than the Scottish Government have yet been capable of providing.
I call Chris Davies.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I preferred the way my right hon. Friend was conducting matters, as I would have been called first.
Is a specific, ring-fenced budget for agriculture to be agreed under the Bill? Will there be ring-fenced provision for the devolved Governments in times to come?
I do not know whether I am Karajan, Furtwängler or Mahler, but one thing I do know is how vital it is to listen to Welsh male voices, such as my hon. Friend’s. He is absolutely right. That is why shortly we will publish the terms of reference for a review of funding across the United Kingdom. I can guarantee, however, that agricultural funding will not be Barnettised, and the generous—rightly generous—settlement that gives Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales more than England will be defended. More than that, I underline in particular the fact that we provide for all UK farmers a greater guarantee of future funding than farmers anywhere else in the European Union enjoy. Our funding is guaranteed until 2022, whereas in the EU the current common agricultural policy is guaranteed only to 2020. UK farmers have greater financial certainty than farmers anywhere else in Europe.
The chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, has described antimicrobial resistance as a “catastrophic threat”, and the Secretary of State will know that it is not only in human healthcare but sometimes in farming that we see inappropriate use of antimicrobials, thus increasing the risk that we will lose their benefit to human health. Will he use the Bill as a vehicle to drive down further inappropriate antimicrobial prescribing in agriculture and to incentivise farmers who do the right thing? Will he also make sure that we are not exposed to products from places around the world where antimicrobials are used wholly inappropriately, including with environmental contamination?
The Chair of the Select Committee on Health and Social Care makes an absolutely important point. I have had the opportunity to talk to Dame Sally Davies, who has written a brilliant short book about the vital importance of dealing with antimicrobial resistance. I should also pay tribute to Lord O’Neill, who led work under Prime Minister David Cameron on this. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the Bill contains provisions to provide support and payments to farmers who take the appropriate animal health and welfare measures to ensure that we can fight the overuse of antibiotics, which is both a threat to human and animal health, and an environmental danger.
May I go back to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) about schedule 3, which gives specific powers to Wales? Is the Secretary of State telling the House that those specific powers are available to England as well?
The powers in Wales are different, but we have powers for improving productivity and providing farmers with the grants, support and loans they need not just to improve productivity but to ensure that producer organisations can work effectively in the market to secure for UK farmers, whether in England or in Wales, all the advantages they need to market effectively and secure the right price for their product.
Will the Secretary of State use the new system of farm support to discourage the intensive farming methods that can lead to low welfare standards and the overuse of antibiotics?
At the heart of everything we wish to do is making sure that we have an ethical approach and that farmers in the UK, who, overwhelmingly, are doing the right thing and leading the way in progressive farming, are supported. One thing I should say, which I believe is mentioned in the policy statement that accompanied the publication of this Bill, is that Dame Glenys Stacey is leading a review of farm inspection, because one problem we have at the moment is that, notwithstanding the good efforts of our field force, the level and intensity of farm inspection is not what we need it to be in order to ensure the very highest animal welfare and environmental standards.
I shall seek to make some progress, because I know that more than 30 Government Members and some 14 Opposition Members wish to speak in this debate. I hope the House will recognise that I have been generous in accepting interventions. I will say a little more about the contents of the Bill before, of course, listening to the contributions in this debate.
I should preface my remarks by saying that I want to pay a particular tribute not just to my predecessors in this role, my right hon. Friends the Members for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), for Meriden (Dame Caroline Spelman) and for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), for the work they have done to ensure that DEFRA has been well led in recent years, but to the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, my hon. Friend the Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice). This week marks his fifth year in DEFRA. I think everyone from across the House will agree that someone who was brought up in farming, who has dedicated his whole life to getting the best possible deal for British agriculture and who has been an exceptionally thoughtful, courteous and wise guide to a succession of DEFRA Secretaries deserves the House’s thanks and congratulations. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”]
I also wish to stress my gratitude to those from devolved Administrations. As we know, sadly there is no Assembly in Northern Ireland, but the excellent civil servants who work in the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs have been instrumental in making sure that provisions are there for Northern Ireland in this Bill. I also want to pay tribute to Lesley Griffiths of the Welsh Assembly and Fergus Ewing of the Scottish Government. Lesley Griffiths has taken advantage of the provisions in this Bill, as a number of Members have pointed out, to shape a settlement specific for Wales. I am delighted that the Labour Government in Wales are supporting the Bill, even if not every Labour Member here is taking the same pragmatic and positive line.
This Bill will set a clear direction for the future of agriculture. It will ensure that farmers have time to make the appropriate changes required: there will be a seven-year transition period from 2021 in order to enable our farmers to take advantage of the new opportunities that this Bill provides. We believe that strikes the right balance between addressing the urgency of the need for change in order to reward farmers better for the environmental and other public goods that they provide, and providing people with an opportunity to change their business model, if necessary, in order to take advantage of those changes in a staged and appropriate way.
It is striking that during the consultation we undertook on what should replace the common agricultural policy there was a universal embrace of the need for change; not one of the submissions we received argued that the CAP status quo should remain. It is striking also that in the pages of The Guardian George Monbiot, not naturally a friend or supporter of Conservative Governments, points out that this legislation takes us in the right direction. It is striking also that the National Farmers Union has pointed out that although it understandably would like to see more detail about how these schemes would operate—that detail will be forthcoming—it, along with the Country Land and Business Association, The Wildlife Trusts and Greener UK, welcomes the direction in which this Government are taking agriculture.
Of course, one reason why no one can defend the current system is that it allocates public money—taxpayers’ money—purely on the basis of the size of an agricultural land holding. As we know, many of the beneficiaries are not even UK or EU citizens, but foreign citizens who happen to have invested in agricultural land. Many people have made the point, as the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) and my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire have done today, that we must support our upland farmers particularly well. At the moment, the CAP does not give the bulk of its funds to those who are farming in marginal or upland areas; it gives the bulk of its funds to major landowners. It is a simple matter of social justice and economic efficiency that we need to change that system.
The approach my right hon. Friend has adopted of building the big tent coalition in support of the Bill’s principal aims and objectives is the right one. However, will he address a concern that I have? Will he confirm that food production and food security are integral parts of the Bill, and that farming and food production are seen as important and not as an attractive add-on to broader environmental issues?
My hon. Friend is right about that. When I was visiting an agricultural show recently—that is one of the many pleasures of this job—I was talking to a farmer who, although wholly supportive of the approach we were taking, reminded me that if we want all the environmental benefits that our farmers can produce, because they are responsible for 70% of the landscape of the United Kingdom, we must ensure that farms remain profitable businesses. This Bill will not only reward farmers for the public goods they provide, but provide a platform for increased productivity, because food production is at the heart of every farm business—as that farmer reminded me, “You can’t go green if you are in the red.”
Will the Secretary of State spell out what assurances he can actually give on food standards and various other standards that apply to this Bill? A lot of people want assurances on that and, in particular, environmental issues too.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman that consumers are increasingly demanding, and rightly so, about the provenance, quality and standards of the food being produced. As my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon made clear, we have the opportunity to reform our labelling system, to ensure both that human health and safety are better protected than ever before and that people have a guarantee of the circumstances in which their food has been produced.
The Secretary of State is well aware that the UK Government withheld £160 million of convergence uplift money that was due to Scottish farmers. How much lobbying have Scottish Tory MPs done to recover that £160 million? How much of that money have they secured for Scottish farmers?
I mentioned earlier that an enjoyable part of my job is visiting agricultural shows, where I have had the opportunity of meeting Scottish MSPs, but I have never met a Scottish National party MP at any agricultural show in Scotland that I have visited. I have seen my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid) standing up for Scottish farmers. I have seen my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) standing up for Scottish farmers. I have seen my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Colin Clark) standing up for Scottish farmers. I have seen my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) standing up for Scottish farmers. I have visited farms with my hon. Friend the Member for Angus (Kirstene Hair). We can tell by the representation of Scottish Conservative Members here today, and by the dearth of SNP Members, who stands up for rural Scotland. The hon. Gentleman makes a signal and it shows exactly what the Scottish Government are doing for Scotland’s farmers—sweet zero.
Food production is critical, and making sure that farmers get a fair price for their products is important. For too long, farmers have been price takers, because there has been inadequate information about how supply chains work and inadequate powers to intervene. The Government have a duty to step in to support farmers, and we have in this Bill powers to ensure that the data is there for farmers to get a fair price at the farm gate for their produce and, in the event of severe market disturbances, that we can also intervene to ensure that farmers get a fair price.
There is one other critical thing. I mentioned the role of producer organisations earlier. Collaboration is critical not just in delivering environmental improvements at landscape scale, but in making sure that farmers get a fair price for what they produce. This Bill makes provision for increased collaboration.
I am enjoying the speech—not all of it, but most of it—but I hope that the Secretary of State will remember not just to tilt at windmills that are easily demolished, but to take on vested interest that will oppose him. I would like to hear more on the supermarkets. The role of the supermarkets in the agricultural and food sectors in this country is very dominant and sometimes very negative. Is he willing to take them on?
I appreciate the vital importance of supermarkets and other retailers. The powers that we are taking in this Bill should ensure that farmers get a fair price. However, I do want to stress—I had an opportunity to do so briefly earlier—the increasingly progressive role that those leading our supermarkets and our food retailers are taking. They are responding to consumer demand for more information about where food comes from. They are also responding to some of the criticisms in the past about the uniformity of vegetables that are capable of being sold. The Co-op and others who have responded to Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s campaign for wonky veg—I am all in favour of wonky veg—are doing the right thing. The hon. Gentleman is right: we do need to remain vigilant both for the consumer and for the food producer to ensure that we have the right outcomes.
I am glad that the Secretary of State has turned his attention to the food supply chain. He will be aware, I am sure, of the reforms introduced last week by the French Government that will radically alter the power within the supply chain away from supermarkets to the producer. Is that something that the British Government are looking at?
I am always interested in what we can learn from France. We want to make sure that food and drink, which is our biggest manufacturing sector overall, can continue to be world leading. Critical to that, as the hon. Gentleman mentioned and as I acknowledged in responding to the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), is making sure that there is a fair price at the farm gate for our food producers. Our farmers do not want subsidy; what they want is fairness, and that is what this Bill seeks to deliver.
Talking of fairness, I just want to stress the critical importance of recognising what a public good is. There has been some debate over what a public good might mean. It is some time since I studied economics, but public goods have a clear definition: they are non-exclusionary and non-rivalrous. We can all enjoy them, and as we all enjoy them, no one, if they are enjoying a public good, does so at the expense of anyone else. I am talking about clean air, soil quality and making sure that we invest in carbon sequestration, that farmers get supported for the work that they do to keep our rivers clean and our water pure, that the public have access to our glorious countryside and that the contribution that farmers make to animal health and welfare is recognised. We all benefit from those public goods, but, at the moment, our farmers are not adequately rewarded for them. We in the UK spend a higher proportion of common agricultural policy funds on rural development and on environmental schemes than any other country in the European Union—I should say that the Welsh Administration lead the way in this—but far too much of our money still goes on coupled support based on hectarage payments, rather than on rewarding farmers for what they do and on giving DEFRA the opportunity to intervene to give farmers the deal that they deserve.
I am very happy to give way to—ah—the hon. Member for High Peak (Ruth George).
I congratulate the Secretary of State on his reading ability. He has mentioned animal welfare. Various Members have asked about the difference between Wales and England. Local abattoirs are very important—as important as farms—to high standards of animal welfare. Will he commit to supporting small abattoirs, a third of which have closed already, in the investment that they need to comply with the regulations and to looking again at DEFRA’s decision last week not to award grants to small abattoirs as is being done in Wales?
It is important that we have a network of abattoirs that enables, wherever possible, sustainable local food production. I know that it is an issue close to the hon. Lady’s heart; it is also close to mine. I pay tribute to Patrick Holden and the sustainable farming network for the campaigning work that they have done. We are doing everything we can to support small abattoirs. When it comes to animal welfare, it is also important that we make sure that we have a strong network of official veterinarians guaranteeing the quality of our food. It is also important that we recognise that this Government—originally under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom)—have introduced, or required, CCTV in all abattoirs to make sure that there is no hiding place for animal cruelty. It is critical that we recognise that our farmers thrive on the basis of producing high-quality food with animal welfare at its heart.
In the timeline that was published this morning, it says that higher animal welfare standards will be defined in 2020. Will the Secretary of State assure me that the bar for those will not be set any lower than they are at present? Ideally, they should be considerably higher.
Absolutely. I recognise that I have been on my feet, although taking questions, for 27 minutes now, so I do want to draw my remarks to close.
I must give way to the hon. Gentleman.
I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that he would be very welcome to come and visit us at the Black Isle show next summer. It is self-evident to me that we cannot do much with the straths and glens in my constituency other than rear sheep. I want to push him on one other point. Tourism depends on seeing our straths and glens populated with livestock and on vibrant and successful farming. May I push him for his comments on the tourism aspect of agriculture?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point. I would be delighted to visit the Black Isle show and also to visit Lairg in his constituency, where I know that some of Scotland’s finest sheep farmers have an opportunity every year to demonstrate what they can do. He is absolutely right: iconic landscapes from Caithness and Sutherland and Easter Ross through to the Lake District and, indeed, Exmoor and Dartmoor depend for their tourist appeal and for their pull on the human heart on the work of our farmers. It is inconceivable that those iconic landscapes could survive and flourish without the rural, economic and social network that sheep farming and other forms of farming provide. Absolutely, we do recognise that. It is a public good, and public access to our countryside is placed here.
I am happy to give way, but this will probably be the last pair that I give way to.
I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend. I warmly support this Bill because it incentivises farmers to enhance biodiversity and to promote animal welfare. This is not just a rural issue; it is an urban issue as well. What can he say about how there will be better potential for my constituents in Cheltenham to access this even more diverse and even more beautiful countryside?
I know how important the environment and animal welfare issues are to my hon. Friend, as he has tirelessly campaigned on them. I also know that his constituents will be able to enjoy improved access to the countryside through the provisions in the Bill. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education is making £10 million available to ensure that more schoolchildren have an opportunity to understand what goes on in our countryside. Making sure that the next generation understands where our food comes from and the vital importance of food production will be absolutely critical. When the Department for Education set up the school food plan and when this Government ensured that all children up to the age of 14 received lessons in where food comes from and in cooking, that was an earnest example of our commitment to ensuring that everyone appreciates the vital importance of our farmers and the work that they do.
I am seduced by the vision of the future of British agriculture painted by the Secretary of State, but I am puzzled why he wants to take so long before he can get started on it. Why do we have to remain trapped in the limbo of the transition, whereby we will still be trapped in the common agricultural policy when, by joining the European Free Trade Association and the European economic area on our way out of the EU, we could start on his magnificent reforms next March?
I am delighted to have been able to seduce my hon. Friend. What is striking in the seduction is that, rather than asking for a slower hand, he wants a rough wooing. He makes the best possible case for his proposition, but I must respectfully disagree with him. The transition period, both the one that is being secured as we leave the European Union and the one for our farmers, is the right balance between urgency and space for reform.
My right hon. Friend was talking about public goods—an approach that I welcome. May I bring him to the question of health? Can he assure me that his Bill will support the production of fruit and vegetables in this country, which is so important to the nation’s health?
Absolutely; the consumption of more fruit and vegetables is critical to improving public health. I am delighted that, thanks to the lobbying of my hon. Friend and so many Conservative Members, we were able to introduce a seasonal workers scheme pilot to ensure that fruit and vegetable growers get the support that they deserve. We will also have new schemes—improved over those that the EU provides—to ensure that the producer organisations that represent our growers continue to do the brilliant job that they do.
I should stress that the Bill will also ensure that the UK can take its seat at the World Trade Organisation and negotiate on behalf of the whole United Kingdom. Some people have suggested that the Bill constitutes a power grab from our devolved Administrations—nothing could be further from the truth. The Bill will empower the Welsh Assembly, the Northern Ireland Government and the Scottish Government to do what they believe is right for our farmers, and what is right for our farmers is to move away from a system that has constrained their energy, undermined their enterprise, held back innovation in food production and inadequately rewarded them not only for the food that they provide, but for the environmental and other goods that they provide for us.
The Bill gives us an opportunity to put farming across the United Kingdom on a surer footing, so that we can produce more, sell more and export more, but also hand on our environment in a better state to the next generation. I commend it to the House.
It will be very obvious from the number of people now on their feet that there is a huge demand for time to speak this afternoon. Although we have many hours ahead, I will have to impose a time limit from the very beginning. I give warning now—so that people can throw away pages and pages of their notes—that the time limit will initially be eight minutes, and I anticipate that it might well reduce later.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “That” to the end of the Question and add:
“this House, whilst recognising that on leaving the EU the UK needs to shift agricultural support from land-based payments to the delivery of environmental and other public benefits, declines to give a Second Reading to the Agriculture Bill because it fails to provide a strategy to safeguard the nation’s food supply at a time when food poverty and foodbank demand are rising rapidly alongside an epidemic in food-related health inequality, fails to recognise the central importance of UK sustainable food production and supply, leading to a greater reliance on imports, while failing to provide for controls over the production methods, working conditions, or animal welfare and environmental standards in countries from which the UK’s food is imported, and, when the natural environment is in crisis, with species decline at an alarming scale, soil degradation and increasingly volatile and extreme weather conditions driven by escalating climate change, provides the Secretary of State with wide-ranging powers but no duties or legally enforceable environmental protection targets, whilst giving Parliament limited ability to scrutinise any changes in the regime, and fails to legislate for current funding to continue until 2022 as Ministers have promised; and is of the opinion that the publication of such a Bill should have been preceded by a full process of pre-legislative scrutiny of a draft Bill.”
This country is in desperate need of an Agriculture Bill that provides certainty and clarity for our food and farming industry, but instead the Secretary of State has laid before us nothing but a huge missed opportunity. There are no targets for environmental improvements or reducing carbon emissions; there is no commitment to producing healthy, home-grown food in a post-Brexit world; and there is no commitment to protecting the people of this country from food poverty at a time when thousands rely on food banks. We need an Agriculture Bill, but we need it to be better than this.
The Labour party absolutely agrees with the need to shift financial assistance in the way proposed by the Bill, from support for simply owning land to the principle of public money for public goods to help those who work our land to restore and improve the natural environment. This has been rightly welcomed by environmental campaigners as a real turnaround in the Government’s thinking. I join those campaigners in applauding the Secretary of State in this regard, because—make no mistake—our natural environment is in crisis, with soil degradation, species in alarming decline, increasingly volatile and extreme weather conditions, and air pollution that has remained at illegal levels since 2010. But does the Bill actually match up to the scale of the environmental crisis facing us?
The Bill provides only powers. Clause 1 states that the Secretary of State “may” give financial assistance for environmental purposes—there is no duty or requirement for him to actually do anything. The environmental outcomes we need delivered are not prescribed. There are no targets and no mechanism for setting any targets. No funding is identified in the Bill. No delivery or regulatory bodies will be resourced by it.
My hon. Friend is making a marvellous speech. She will be aware of the warning from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that we will reach the 1.5° C threshold in 12 years, by 2030, and of the contribution of cattle and agriculture in general towards our carbon emissions. Does that not underline the importance of having targets, which are so sadly missing from this Bill?
My hon. Friend makes an extremely important point. The report was deeply shocking and the Bill must reflect that urgent action needs to be taken.
Let me bring the Secretary of State’s green Brexit dream into the cold light of day. At first contact with the Chancellor and all the other competing demands on the Treasury, the reality is that the Secretary of State’s green Brexit will soon wither on the vine without any commitment written into the Bill to maintain the current levels of spending. Farmers and green campaigners are in complete alignment on this.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech. I had hoped to intervene on the Secretary of State but he refused to let me. I would have told him that many small upland livestock producers in my constituency are really concerned about the lack of detail in the Bill, particularly given that the Secretary of State says that he wants to support them and enhance their profitability. Does my hon. Friend share my concern about when we might get this detail and whether the Government will even consider the different scenarios that Brexit could bring to these upland producers?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. There are also many upland farmers in my constituency, and they have raised exactly the same concerns with me.
We know that for farmers to be sustainable environmentally, they must also be sustainable economically. I remind the Secretary of State who the farmer he quoted earlier actually was: Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers Union, who said that farmers cannot be green if they are in the red. Farmers need to be able to invest with certainty over long periods, especially in sectors such as forestry. How can they be expected to stay afloat when the Secretary of State has proved himself unable to make good in the Bill any of the funding promises?
The hon. Lady is making a very sensible point, specifically regarding basic payments for farmers. However, the post-Brexit agricultural policy of the Welsh Labour Government more or less mirrors exactly what has been proposed by the Secretary of State. After the hon. Lady finishes her speech, will she get on the phone to the branch manager, Carwyn Jones, and tell him to introduce a more sensible policy?
Well, I think that more powers are provided in this Bill for some Welsh Ministers than for English Ministers. I have had a long discussion with my counterparts in the Welsh Government and will continue to work with them to discuss these points.
Will the hon. Lady explain why the Welsh Government appear to be supporting this Bill and the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, yet her colleagues are opposing this legislation?
As I have said, we believe that greater powers are provided for Welsh Ministers than English Ministers in this Bill; there is more certainty. It is really important that we bring that back.
On Sunday, I attended a harvest festival at my local church, and I am sure that many hon. Members did something similar. I know that the whole House will join me in expressing our thankfulness for everything that the farming community in this country achieves to help feed the nation, often against the odds. After the extreme weather that farmers endured last winter and this summer, they are probably more affected by climate change than any other sector.
However, agriculture now accounts for 10% of UK greenhouse gas emissions—a larger share than at any time since 1990—and the Committee on Climate Change has reported that there has been virtually no change in agricultural emissions since 2008. This means that agricultural emissions are not on track to deliver the carbon budget savings required by 2022.
Net carbon sequestration from forestry has flatlined but the Bill provides only for mitigating or adapting to climate change. It seems that the Secretary of State has not heard the Committee’s call, made only in June, for this Bill to link financial support to agricultural emissions reduction and increased carbon sequestration.
Does the hon. Lady agree that the Bill needs to have a net zero emissions target for the agricultural sector? If we shifted to more support for organic farming, that would help too: organic soils are much better at retaining carbon than intensively farmed soil.
The hon. Lady makes a good point. It is critical that we begin looking across all industries to see how we can shift to net zero.
Will the hon. Lady explain how much, according to her calculations, it will cost to achieve net zero in agriculture? Will that be met from general taxation through the Government or through increased food prices at the supermarket?
I do not believe that I made that commitment, so it is not something on which I have done calculations at this time.
Continuing to deplete soils, lose pollinators and pollute waters does nothing for farm productivity; that is why we need a Bill that delivers food security as well as environmental outcomes. It is self-defeating and academic to separate those objectives, as the Secretary of State is attempting to do. This is the first time in more than 40 years that a Secretary of State has been directly responsible for the nation’s food security, yet food security has drifted off the Government’s agenda, and they are not offering any clear vision for the future of our nation’s food supply. The Bill is worryingly silent when it comes to food poverty. It says nothing about the balance between the production of healthy and sustainable British food and reliance on imports, the jobs and health and safety of agricultural workers, and preventing trade deals involving lower standards, undercutting British producers.
It is 71 years since the Agriculture Act 1947 was passed by the great post-war Attlee Government. Attlee judged that its author Tom Williams
“effected nothing less than a revolution in British agriculture”
“his place in history is assured as the greatest British Minister of Agriculture of all time”.
I remind the House that the purpose of the Act was
“promoting and maintaining...a stable and efficient agricultural industry capable of producing such part of the nation’s food and other agricultural produce as in the national interest it is desirable to produce in the United Kingdom, and of producing it at minimum prices consistently with proper remuneration and living conditions for farmers and workers in agriculture and an adequate return on capital invested in the industry.”
Article 39 of the treaty of Rome set out the aims of the common agricultural policy, including ensuring
“a fair standard of living for the agricultural community…the availability of supplies”,
“supplies reach consumers at reasonable prices.”
It is a matter of strategic national interest and social justice that we should ensure that our country is better able to feed itself with healthy, nutritional food while protecting itself against volatility. That is why it is important for sustainable food production to be a central part of the Bill.
Why did we lose so much market share and end up importing so much food under the CAP?
That is a good question, but one to which I do not have a detailed answer—I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman for that. It is a really important point: we were increasing production, but then it began to drop. It is an issue that we need to address. If there is a dramatic reduction in UK food production, greater reliance on imports would result in a lack of control over production, animal welfare, and environmental and working standards.
The answer lies simply in the tastes of the consumer. We like oranges—we like food that grows abroad but which we do not grow. That demand has grown over the years, so we import more. We should be careful lest we try to search for set levels of output or demand in what is still a market economy.
Clearly, we cannot grow everything that consumers would like to purchase in this country, but we can do more to increase the production of food that can be produced in this country. It is important that we protect standards too, and any trading deals should protect the standards that our farmers currently work to.
I think the answer will be yes, but does the hon. Lady agree that it will be a hallmark of success for the whole Brexit process if, 10 or 15 years down the line, we find that we are importing no more foodstuffs than we do today, and preferably less because we are producing more?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point.
I would like to think about health, because the Bill fails to recognise the importance of food and diet for health. Why, when we spend so much money subsidising our food producers, are so many of them on the verge of bankruptcy or breakdown? Why is there so much wasted food when foodbank demand has never been higher? While the quality of our home-produced food has never been higher, why do we have an epidemic of obesity and diabetes? The Bill completely misses the opportunity to tackle those problems. We need a Bill that strengthens and enshrines support for sustainable food production, promotes healthy outcomes and supports rural economies, because we believe that access to good-quality, healthy food must not be allowed to become the preserve of only those who can afford it.
Given the shadow Minister’s concern about these issues—green Brexit, food, food waste and all those things—it is interesting that she was not given a major slot on the main stage at the Labour conference. In my meetings, I have not come across a single environmentalist or farmer who does not support the initiatives in the Bill.
The hon. Lady may recall that the Leader of the Opposition discussed the environment and issues connected with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in his speech.
All over the world, nearly all farmers are supported financially to produce food, and our farmers must be able to compete with them, but to do so they will need the right financial and policy framework so that they are not disadvantaged in a competitive and volatile global marketplace. We need to move away from the current system of direct payments, but if we are to bring in land management contracts, they need to be accessible. The recent delivery of payments to farmers and landowners has been poor, and the hoops that have to be jumped through put many people off signing up in the first place. We need to ensure that the agencies are adequately resourced—only then can they properly help the farmers who need the support that subsidies provide.
Does my hon. Friend agree that, given their excellent relationships with farmers and landscape managers, national parks are ideally placed to provide that network in our national park areas, where so much farming goes on?
I thank my hon. Friend for her contribution. I have discussed that with the Lake District national park, which is in my constituency, and I am sure that there will be other discussions in this area.
An important point was made about the number of forms that farmers have to fill in to access funds. Does the honourble not agree that one of the most important things is ensuring the availability of reliable broadband, given that the amount of farming now done online is way in excess of the amount of farming when Clement Attlee was the post-war Prime Minister?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that important contribution. It is disappointing that the digital roll-out came before farmers could access it. I would add that mobile connectivity is as important, because when farmers submit their application online, they are sent a text message with a code that they need to put in; if they do not have a mobile signal, they cannot continue with the application. All these things need to be considered before we move forward.
We praise all our farmers for the important role that they play in environmental stewardship. The Secretary of State talked about the fact that the food and drinks industry is such a huge manufacturing sector. It is incredibly important that we get more support for our farmers than the Bill currently offers. At the moment, the Bill offers our family farmers just a payoff, which we believe risks leaving our fields to ever larger, more intensive factory farms run by global big business.
It worries me that the vision of the UK as a leading free trade nation with low tariff barriers is completely at odds with the commitment to thriving British food and farming sectors. Combining and delivering those two objectives will be a considerable challenge for this Government, who are and always have been in favour of more deregulation and who have a blind reliance on the free market to deliver social outcomes. Labour will oppose any free trade deal that threatens existing standards: we will fight any such deals tooth and nail.
In conclusion, the development of a new post-Brexit UK agriculture policy is a seminal moment for the future of our environment, our food production and our countryside. Never has it been more important to lift our line of sight and to talk proactively about what we want to see as part of a long-term strategy for food, farming and the environment. Sustainability, above all else, has to be at the forefront of a thriving farming, food and drink sector.
It is right that we shift agricultural support for land-based payments to the delivery of public and environmental benefits, but the Bill sadly falls short in a number of areas. There is no strategy to safeguard our nation’s food supply or recognition of the importance of sustainability to reduce the reliance on imports. There is no provision for controls over production methods, working conditions, animal welfare or environmental standards in countries from which our food is imported. The Bill hands wide-ranging powers to the Secretary of State but includes no legally enforceable environmental protection targets, and there is no provision for current agricultural funding to continue until 2022, as Ministers have previously promised.
This House should have had the chance to conduct proper prelegislative scrutiny of the Bill. What we are discussing here is fundamental to the future of British agriculture, and getting it right is crucial. For those reasons, I am afraid that Labour cannot support the Bill’s Second Reading, and that is why I strongly urge colleagues to vote for our reasoned amendment tonight.
This is an historic moment, as we last had an agriculture Bill in this House in 1947, since when there have been 15 Prime Ministers and many Governments. We therefore really need to get this Bill right.
The Bill is about agriculture and the environment not just today, but in the future, so I welcome our Secretary of State’s commitment on food security. During the Bill’s passage, I will look for us to adopt for England provisions similar to those in schedule 3 for Wales to ensure that we can support high-quality food production and high animal welfare standards in England and across the United Kingdom. Food security—the ability to have plenty of food, and good food, for our constituents—is very much a public good, and we will debate that further.
While I very much welcome the Bill, I am disappointed that my Select Committee was not offered the opportunity to subject it to prelegislative scrutiny. However, the Secretary of State and Ministers should not worry, because we will do our utmost to ensure that we scrutinise the Bill carefully, clause by clause. While the Bill is very good, I am sure that a little tweak here and there will not do it any harm.
I welcome the long transitional period because it gives farmers certainty over that time. We also need to ensure that as we build stewardship schemes, land management schemes and environmental schemes, we also enter into contracts with farmers of at least five to 10 years. Ministers and the Secretary of State might say that we cannot bind successive Governments, but we must ensure that we have a contract in place so that land management and farming can go hand in hand. We talk as though the environment, food production and farming are all separate, but they are not—they are very much combined. I believe that farmers are the original friends of the earth, and we will ensure that we deliver better soil, a better environment and great food while having as much food security as possible in this country.
I also welcome the Bill’s attempt to tackle unfairness in the supply chain.
Before my hon. Friend moves on, I share his ambition in those respects, but does he agree that as the general framework for subsidy support or payment for ecosystem services lies in this Bill, and the general framework for the environment will lie in the environment Bill, it is appropriate that issues such as the contracting he describes should be covered in secondary legislation?
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s intervention. He is right that that can be dealt with in secondary legislation, but I am, shall I say, a little bit naturally suspicious, so I am trying to ensure that we get everything covered as soon as possible. I like the Bill’s direction of travel towards the environment, but I am convinced that having good, healthy, affordable food is absolutely essential, and that is one of the issues towards which I will maintain my driving forces.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again. The question of how the Select Committee will proceed under his chairmanship seems an important one to resolve. I think that many of us would welcome his driving on that issue, as long as it is done in a way that recognises that we are not trying to build it into the two pieces of primary legislation, which would confuse the issue.
I will take on board my right hon. Friend’s wisdom, and we will look at that as we go through the Select Committee process to ensure that do not do that. I thank him for his intervention.
The Bill very much attempts to tackle unfairness in the supply chain. That is essential. We need to ensure that the groceries code covers all aspects of trade—from the big retailers through to the processors and right down to the big suppliers—so that we can have true fairness in the supply chain. Often, when a consumer buys a product, enough money is paid to the retailer to ensure that there is enough money for the producer, and it is a question of ensuring that that money then gets back to the producer. There is an uneven relationship, with producers often being the weaker partner and not having enough strength in the market.
I welcome the proposals to request data, which will improve transparency in the supply chain, but the way in which that increased transparency will improve fairness in the supply chain remains unclear. Furthermore, there are proposals to streamline support payments and reduce bureaucracy, which I believe we all welcome. I look forward to the Secretary of State and the farming Minister coming before our Select Committee to explain exactly how that can be done. Whether people love or hate the common agricultural policy, there is no doubt that we can have an agricultural policy that suits the four nations of the United Kingdom and that we can devise a better system than the one designed for the 28 countries of the European Union. I have direct knowledge of that, having previously chaired the European Parliament’s Agriculture Committee, so I know that we can do better and I look forward to that.
We welcome this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to shape British farming and the environment. We can improve policies such as our stewardship scheme, for example by ensuring that it runs for a minimum of 10 years and involves forestry. We can also ensure that we do not have to work out when a tree is a sapling and when a sapling is a tree. If we want to include water management, our schemes can include planting trees on banks to hold back water and so on. We can do so much better, and I look forward to hearing about that from Ministers.
Does the hon. Gentleman, who chairs the Committee on which I serve, agree that there is a real danger that it will be the big landowners and farmers who will be best able to apply for environmental grants? We have to guard against that by reducing bureaucracy, as he has indicated.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. We have to ensure that applying for grants is simple enough for all farmers, not just the big landowners who can employ offices full of people to do that, and I believe that we can. With some of the ideas coming forward about how we make payments, we can also ensure that, as we transition, family farms and smaller applicants can have less taken from them in the first instance. There are ways we can make this much more palatable.
Upland farming, which the Secretary of State mentioned, is very important, especially because of lamb and beef production. It is coupled with that great environment on the hillside, and we will not be able to pay public money just to keep sheep and cattle on the hillside; we have to ensure that they are profitable. Profit is what will drive this because—this point has already been made—if you are in the black, you can go more green. That is absolutely essential.
We produce great food. We also have a very effective poultry industry, although sometimes that is not mentioned. That is why we can produce good-quality chickens for under £5. Let us look at how we deal with our food industry and our production.
Does my hon. Friend agree that post Brexit there will be a real opportunity to buy “British first” through the procurement of British-sourced food?
My right hon. Friend and constituency neighbour makes a really good point. We must redouble our efforts to encourage our armed forces, our schools and our health service to procure our high-quality British food. Let us ensure that we can feed our nation with our food, because that is absolutely essential.
I also think that healthy food, as a public good, can be recognised naturally across the piece. This is an agricultural Bill, but if we think about the NHS, we could save nearly £2 billion when we consider the type of healthy food that we can produce. Buying from local producers will allow us to reduce our carbon footprint and improve the environment, so we also need joined-up thinking about future-proofing the Bill. If we weaken our farming sector to the extent that we have to import more food from abroad, there will be many consequences. When we import food from other countries, we also import their water and their means of production, and some countries can little afford that. We have to ensure that we continue to produce good, high-quality food and that, if possible, we produce more of it in future.
It is a pleasure to see so many members of the armed services here to observe the debate—I hope that the Secretary of State was not so alarmed by the prospect of my speech that he called them in.
The Bill lacks a foundation, because as yet there is no Brexit deal and no trade deal. No one here knows what rules will have to be followed in order to allow agricultural produce into the European single market. No one even knows where the UK’s borders will be—perhaps in the middle of the Irish sea. It is that uncertainty that is causing the most concern to farmers and other food producers.
There is a need to be prepared, and I acknowledge that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has to try to guess the future framework that will be needed. I appreciate that Ministers have to bring forward proposals for consideration. Being prepared for what is to come seems sensible at first glance. I have to observe, however, that preparing for Brexit is a wee bit like someone blindfolding themselves before jumping off a cliff: they cannot see the horror, but it is still going to hit them pretty hard. I appreciate where Ministers are coming from, but they seem to have gone off a little prematurely. However, that is not all that is wrong with the Bill.
I think it is important that we talk about what agriculture is for, and what it has been for since the first sod was turned: food production. Agriculture is about producing food or it is about nothing. The advantages to the human race of being a species that can produce its own food rather than just hunt or gather it have been immense. There have been some downsides, not least the environmental damage that some farming practices wreak, but agriculture is what has allowed us to build the civilisations and lifestyles that we now have.
The hon. Lady, my colleague, will of course be aware that during the recess the British Government appointed a food supplies Minister, in preparation for a no deal Brexit—such is the panic at the heart of the British Government. Is it not somewhat incoherent that in agricultural policy there is not that focus on food production that she mentioned, either from the British Government in relation to England or from the Labour Government in relation to Wales? The Scottish National party Government in Scotland, however, will maintain basic payments to help farmers produce food.
I thank my friend the hon. Member for that intervention. I will be coming to that point shortly.
It is agriculture that gives those of us who are worried about the environmental effects the time and space to do that worrying. Agriculture is what lies behind civilisation, because food production and food security—the nourishment of people who can be productive in other ways because they do not have to find or produce their own food—is what underpins the modern economy. Take away the food supply and we destroy the rest of the economy.
Of course, once we leave the EU we will be able to settle our own schedule of tariffs, including those, if any, that we might wish to impose on European continental food. What level of tariff would the hon. Lady recommend?
I am not sure what the right hon. Gentleman is speaking about, because we will also have tariffs imposed on us as a result of these discussions, and they are alarming. Lamb farmers in Scotland are certainly very concerned, and a tariff of something like 46% has been suggested to me.
With the stark warnings about chaos in the chain for imported foods post-Brexit, one would think that domestic food security would be top of the agenda in DEFRA just now. As my friend the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) has just said, the situation is serious enough for a Minister to be appointed to oversee food supplies. That is the kind of ministerial brief we associate with wars in the middle of the last century. With that kind of concern, which is clearly a feature of Whitehall’s panic after failing to plan for Brexit, one would think that domestic food production would be getting a look-in now.
During the recess a constituent of mine was in a care home and saw a poster that said:
“Rationing means a fair share for all of us”.
Does my hon. Friend think that was nostalgia or forward planning?
I certainly hope that we will not get to that situation, because it is an alarming thought. I thank my hon. Friend for that point.
Food production is missing from this Agriculture Bill. We have a Bill to regulate agriculture that is silent on the very essence of agriculture. I appreciate that not every aspect of a portfolio area can be present in every piece of legislation and that there will be times when things are missed, but surely we cannot miss out the core point of the legislation. We really cannot talk about how to regulate or support farming unless we also talk about producing food. Agriculture is not agriculture if it is only land management and form filling.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith, that famous farming constituency, is making a powerful speech.
“The Scottish Government’s climate change ambitions…pose a bigger threat…than Brexit”.
They are not my words, but those of Jim McLaren of Quality Meat Scotland. Would she care to comment on that?
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, although I do not really appreciate the snide remarks about Edinburgh North and Leith, because people there actually eat and they are interested in food.
Returning to my subject, which was food, there is plenty in the Bill to allow Ministers to gather information about food chains and to interfere where they see fit, but nothing about how it will change the structures or the framework around producing food or how Ministers might want to protect, improve and increase food production, food security or food quality. We really need to know a bit about the direction of travel. There is nothing in the Bill that tells us, and the public pronouncements of the DEFRA Secretary suggest a move away from support for food production—or farming, as I like to call it—towards a style of support that would be perfect for managers of large estates, but not those with less land. Grouse moors could benefit, but farmers will not.
None of that detail is in the Bill. There is nothing even to suggest a route map, far less lay out the steps that the Government intend to take. There is nothing about the proposed support mechanism. That is massively important. A farm in Cambridgeshire is very unlike a farm in the Yorkshire dales and even more unlike a farm in Sutherland, where my parents-in-law live, let alone one on Scotland’s islands. Promises were made to Scottish farmers that Brexit would not see them losing cash, at the same time as convergence cash intended for farms in Scotland was being distributed elsewhere, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) mentioned.
The hon. Lady has spent a lot of time criticising this Government’s legislation. I would like to ask the question that many of my constituents who are farmers are wondering about: what is the Scottish Government’s plan for farming post Brexit? We have not got a clue.
I am rather surprised that the hon. Gentleman has not yet read our very sensible proposal for stability and simplicity, which sets out the route map. Let us not forget either that the Scottish Government were the first UK Administration to set out detailed plans for the short and medium term after Brexit. I suggest that he goes online and has a look at our proposal.
Where now are the pledges and promises that were made? Where are the guarantees for Scottish farmers that they will not lose out? Where in this Bill is the guarantee that the cash going to Scotland for Scotland’s farmers will not fall under some newly invented Barnett guillotine or that the additional support that has been available for less favoured areas, which is so important to Scotland, will not simply vanish, like so much else that Scotland is due but Whitehall absorbs? Perhaps we should be looking for a red bus with some numbers on the side and a promise to Scotland’s farmers of untold riches to come. Without that certainty from Whitehall and the news that the funding for Scotland’s farmers is secure, protected from the Brexit meltdown and protected in the long term, farmers in Scotland cannot start planning for the future, and not even the near future.
I looked at the National Audit Office’s report card on DEFRA’s progress in preparing for Brexit and it did not make for pretty reading. It was in fact quite stark, saying:
“DEFRA has not been able to make progress in supporting business in their preparations,”
although it makes it clear that this is partly the fault of the Department for Exiting the European Union for choosing to restrict Departments’ ability to engage with their stakeholders. But whose fault that is will not concern farmers, nor will it be a great concern for those who would like to see food continuing to appear in their shops. The NAO goes on to point out that no information was available on the DEFRA website about the EU exit or any potential changes following Brexit and that, almost ironically, stakeholders such as farmers had to look to the EU agencies’ websites for information about what was likely to follow. The warning about lack of preparedness was pretty stark:
“there is no guidance on Defra’s website for businesses exporting food products to the EU. Some of these may have to apply for an export health certificate for the first time and change trading routes so that their products enter the EU through a border inspection post.”
The most damning part of the report, though, might be the observation that
“DEFRA does not have a clear vision either for the new services and functions it has to introduce or for the organisation as a whole post-EU Exit”.
No clear vision, no plan and no action, but here we are with a Bill to set the future direction. In spite of a 37% increase in the number of legislative staff in the Department, the portfolio board heard in June that
“DEFRA is at high risk of being unable to deliver a full and functioning statute book by end March 2019”
if there is no deal, due to the number of statutory instruments that need to be drafted, but here we are with a Bill that will need further secondary legislation.
I am slightly surprised by the hon. Lady’s criticisms of DEFRA. I understood that agricultural policy was devolved in Scotland.
Which is of course the very point we are making. I thought that everyone would welcome the opinions of the Scottish National party and the people of Scotland, because of course in this precious Union surely we are all equals, although I will come to points that directly affect Scotland shortly.
DEFRA admitted to the NAO that it will be unable to handle the increase in export health certificates needed for farmers to carry on exporting their produce to the world’s largest single market because it is currently done on a spreadsheet that only one person can operate at a time. The Department’s long-term ambition is to get up to the same standard of e-certification that other nations use, but the Treasury has not yet seen the business justification document in order to approve it. I will lay odds that the costs of sorting that out will be more than the spare change down the back of the DEFRA sofa.
If anyone thought that animal exports getting done over was enough bad news, they had better not look at animal imports. The UK will lose access to the EU’s TRACES, or trade control and expert system. Data on animal imports will have to be entered manually at border inspection posts, so we can expect higher error rates, delays at borders while manual checks are carried out and an increased biosecurity risk, according to DEFRA’s report card from the NAO. Potentially, we will have high-quality beef sitting on one side of the border waiting for its turn on the spreadsheet to get a health certificate for export, while the supermarket lasagne is sitting on the other side waiting for a border guard to punch its information into the system. In the meantime, farmers will be watching their livelihoods disappear, while every truck in the game is held up at the border.
There are two points, parallel to those issues, that are vital to Scotland’s food production and marketing. The first is the need for seasonal workers. My hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) will go into our concerns about that at length, but I will quickly add that the pitiful pilot scheme announced recently for seasonal workers would have been laughed at, had we not already seen crops rotting in the fields this year for want of workers to pick them. The other issue is the need for protection in global markets. Those needs are being ignored in Whitehall.
The position on geographical indicators and other protections is similar. The EU currently protects Scottish produce in international markets, including Scotch whisky, Scotch lamb, Scotch beef, the cheeses, Stornoway black pudding, and so on. There are similar products elsewhere—the Melton Mowbray pork pie springs to mind, along with Fenland celery and Yorkshire rhubarb. The Minister of State for Trade Policy gave evidence to a Committee of the Scottish Parliament last month, and said that Scotch whisky would continue to be protected because of the importance of Scotch whisky exports to the UK economy, but that the others were basically up for grabs. He said:
“PGIs present quite serious difficulties in free-trade negotiations because some nations regard them as unfair protection or non-tariff barriers to trade.”
He went on to say that the issue is not straightforward in trade negotiations because we would have to demonstrate market penetration or recognition. In other words, protections in international markets for goods produced here will be negotiating chips on the table in each new trade deal that the UK looks for. Scotland’s farmers, having built a reputation for quality and traceability that helps to sell their products across borders, are about to see their market share threatened, even if they can get through the border posts, because they will be losing easy access to the world’s biggest single marketplace, but also because the protections that the machinery of the EU afford will be stripped away as the UK struggles to learn once again how to negotiate trade deals and negotiates away any protection that our unique products might have had.
It is notable that the briefings on the Bill that I have received from organisations in England are broadly in favour of it, while the briefings from organisations in Scotland are not.
In this, as in so much else, Scotland and England are different, and the differences cannot be easily reconciled. There was a time when Ministers in Whitehall acknowledged and accepted those differences and to an extent celebrated them as part of the diversity of the UK they sought to govern. Acknowledging that diversity and respecting its history could be achieved by respecting the devolved Administrations. There is no need for a power grab. There is no need for the centralisation of responsibility in Smith Square. Indeed, we know, and I am sure the Secretary of State will concede, that the plans being made for agriculture in England and the policies already being implemented would not suit Scotland; they will be harmful to Scottish food producers.
The hon. Lady speaks about briefings. Does she agree with the National Farmers Union Scotland, which said in its briefing that the Scottish National party Scottish Government should accept the offer from the Westminster Government to include a schedule for Scotland? Why is the SNP refusing to do that?
I note the selective quote from the hon. Gentleman. The NFUS also said that any such schedule should be one that comes from the Scottish Government. One could ask whether the DEFRA Secretary would be willing to accept Scottish Government amendments.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is very important that we hear from the SNP, because the Bill does pertain to Scotland. However, as the hon. Lady has just said, a large part of this area is devolved. Is it not then fair that the SNP abides, as we all have to, by the eight-minute limit, instead of taking twice that amount of time?
I appreciate the point made by the hon. Gentleman, but the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) is her party’s Front-Bench spokesman. She is therefore not subject to a time limit. I am quite sure that, being an hon. Lady and a good orator, she will not take more time than is suitable, but it is up to her to decide what that is.
Thanks for that, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is always a delight to hear just how warmly we are welcomed by Members in this place from other parties, especially those on the Government Benches.
Returning to my point, these are plans made by England’s Ministers for England’s industry: policies created by English Ministers to be English solutions to English problems. The sensible approach, I would argue, is to embrace Scottish solutions to Scottish problems and Welsh solutions to Welsh problems. Ministers in the Scottish and Welsh Governments should be in full control.
Why is it that the Welsh Administration are capable of providing a schedule to the Bill for Welsh needs, but the Scottish Government are not? Why are the Scottish Government silent on future policy for Scotland’s farmers? Why is it that we are providing certainty for farmers in the United Kingdom, as the Welsh Labour Administration are doing, but the hon. Lady is so recklessly negligent of rural Scotland’s interests?
I am afraid that, unlike Welsh Labour Government Ministers, our Ministers are prepared to stand up for Scotland rather more forcefully. Ministers in the Scottish and Welsh Governments should be in full control of environmental, food and rural affairs policies, including agriculture. Let England be England; let Scotland be Scotland; and let Wales be Wales. There are fully functioning Administrations ready to take up the reins.
The Bill should be taken away and thought through again, so that there is something resembling sensible proposed legislation to be considered. We have a Bill that came prematurely: a lack of focus on the actual purpose of agriculture, a senseless and damaging power grab, the absence of any indication of a financial underpinning of Scottish agriculture and the protections that Scottish produce currently enjoys being stripped away. The Secretary of State is not a stupid man and he will know that the Bill is not fit for purpose. He has a leadership campaign to consider, no doubt, but legislation made here affects people who are trying to work, earn a living, get ahead and plan for the future. It should be done with care and a great deal of thought.
Finally, once upon a time, there was a Prime Minister called David Cameron, who started his term of office by visiting Edinburgh and then Cardiff to promote a respect agenda. He said that he wanted to make sure the UK was a partnership, not a dictatorship, and that he was determined to make devolution work. His Government, which contained many of the members of the current Government, promised to uphold the devolved powers to make sure that Scotland’s Parliament was properly respected. That agenda has vanished in the rush of blood that characterises the current Government’s planning for Brexit. Instead of respect for Scotland’s democracy and instead of upholding devolution, this Government are guilty of a centralisation of power the likes of which has not been seen in Europe for a lifetime. The political equivalent of an asset-stripping raid on the powers and responsibilities of Scotland’s Parliament and Scotland’s Government is breathtaking in its scope. Perhaps more breathtaking, however, is the truly outrageous determination of Ministers to pretend that there is nothing to see here, that nothing is being removed and that everything is being done for our own good.
The truth is that this is an assault on Scotland’s democracy that bears parallels to a previous Tory Government’s assault on Scotland’s industrial base. The ramifications of that assault are still being felt in Scotland and the ramifications of this one, if it is allowed to proceed, will hold Scotland back for decades to come. No decent Scottish MP could stand by and allow that to happen, no matter what party rosette they wear. No Scottish MP should be supporting a Bill that is part of that command-era-style centralisation. Every Scottish MP who wants to protect Scotland’s democracy, Scotland’s Parliament and the right of the Scottish people to choose their own Government will not be voting for the Bill today.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock). I am glad she has finished. I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
This is a great day. We can debate the details of an agricultural policy for which we are responsible. We may not agree with the shadow Secretary’s speech, but she made points that now have to be answered in this House. On day one in DEFRA, I was amazed to receive my brief and hear that we were being fined—called “disallowance” in Eurospeak—£630 million because the Commission did not like the cack-handed manner by which the previous Labour Government had gone from historic payments to area payments. That cannot now happen. The people now responsible, I am delighted to say, are sitting on the Government Front Bench. They have brought forward the Bill, which enables us to deliver what I think will be a real future for our farming industry and for our environment.
At DEFRA, I set four priorities: grow the rural economy, improve the environment, protect the country from animal disease and protect the country from plant disease. They can all be fulfilled within the Bill. The common agricultural policy had got itself completely stuck. Originally begun as a heavily subsidised production regime that produced vast amounts of food that could not be sold but had to be dumped on third markets with great export subsidies, it is morphing slowly into an all-encompassing environmental scheme for a continent where, as was pointed out to the Commission during the CAP negotiations, it is minus -45 in northern Sweden and plus -45 in Andalusia. It is impossible to have an all-encompassing regime for the continent. We have ended up with muddles such as the three-crop rule, which is deeply damaging to the mixed variety of farming in this country. We can now design a policy tailored to our own environment for each of our regions, as we touched on just now.
My first criticism is that it would be nice to have in the introduction a mention of food. Food and drink production is huge. It is worth £85 billion a year to the economy, supporting 3.5 million jobs and providing 62% of the food we eat. By the way, that is down from 78%. In 1978, we produced 78% of the food we eat. The CAP has failed even on self-sufficiency. It would be appropriate to have food in the title of the Bill, because that surely is the first role of farming.
What I would like to see—I am delighted no one has touched on it—is our leaving food production to farmers. I cite two countries from which we should take an example. New Zealand and Australia stopped all food subsidies. New Zealand used to have 70 million woolly raggedy things called sheep running around causing appalling environmental damage, including soil erosion and water pollution. In one year, I think 1983, 6 million tonnes of sheep had to be turned into fertiliser—it could not sell them. It now has zero subsidies for production and has improved its technology enormously. Today, there are about 27 million sheep, but it exports more lamb. That is an incredible achievement and that is the lesson for the Secretary of State: we should not subsidise food production. The New Zealanders have created whole new industries—with wine, and with venison. They hardly had any deer, but that industry is now worth a significant sum in exports for New Zealanders—about $100 million New Zealand dollars..
Those are the clear lessons. Where the Government can help, and there are opportunities in the Bill, is on technology. The Secretary of State came with me to Harper Adams University and we saw a prototype machine that will go along a row of strawberries in a polytunnel, leave the brown one because it is rotten, leave the green one for tomorrow and pick the big red one for one supermarket and the little red one for another, and pack it on the machine, avoiding all contact with human hands and swiftly delivering, healthy food to our consumers. The university would like help to get that prototype moving, and that is the sort of area where the Government have a direct opportunity to help.
Secondly on technology, the Secretary of State came with me to Soulton Hall and saw my young constituent Tim Ashton, who has gone for no till. He has managed to reduce costs in wheat production by 60%. In North Shropshire, just outside Wem, he can look Kansas, Australia or Argentina in the eye at world prices. He will make money at world prices. So long as we are not idiotic about glyphosate, with no till, there are the most amazingly beneficial environmental outcomes. Less water is going in the river and there is a huge increase in flora and fauna—so much so that he has stopped counting barn owls because there are just too many. On soil, having seen that, I would flag up to the Secretary of State that clause 1 really ought to list soil improvement as a public benefit to be sought. He has a pretty good list of public goods, but I would add soil and animal welfare, which is very important. I do not think that there is a single person in the House who would not like to see improved animal welfare standards. That is a clear public good that costs. We saw what happened when Lord Deben unilaterally improved our regime on tethers and stalls; there was a huge cost to our own industry and we ended up importing pork products from regimes that are less beneficial. But animal welfare is a public good; we would all support it; and there is room in this Bill to pay for that.
The other country that I would consider would be Switzerland. Do not subsidise food production—leave that to technology, to development and to individual farmers—but consider that livestock farming has an enormous environmental role. Tourism is worth about £30 billion in the rural economy. People will not go to the Derbyshire dales if there are no elders and willows and the stone walls have fallen down. They will not go to the Lake district; they will not go to Scotland; they will not go to north or mid-Wales. They will go there if there is a managed number of livestock maintaining the environment. That is the lesson from Switzerland. Very large numbers of sheep, cattle and calves are taken up to the highest Alps in the summer at vast expense—probably the most ludicrously uneconomic way to produce food in the world, but one with a massive environmental benefit, maintaining the landscape. That is the lesson on public goods, most of which are cited in clause 1.
Let us copy New Zealand and Australia on zero food subsidies and following technology, and copy Switzerland on significant payments—more than we get on the CAP at the moment—for the maintenance of those rural and marginal areas where one cannot survive at world food prices alone. Lastly, and very briefly, we are talking about public goods and if the farm is large and provides lots of public goods, I do not mind if it gets more public money. The Secretary of State is quite right to criticise the old basic payment in which people just got paid for having vast amounts of land and not delivering public goods, but I think it is unfair to penalise large, efficient units if in future they are going to provide lots of public goods.
I congratulate the Secretary of State heartily. We will see a lot of detail in the statutory instruments, but the Bill broadly gives us a very good framework to copy New Zealand and Switzerland. With that, I look forward to voting for it tonight.
This is a Bill that I hoped we would never have to discuss. No Russian cyber-attack could ever do as much damage to the UK as we are about to do to ourselves by leaving the world’s biggest market. The best deal we can get could only ever be second best to what we already have. However—and here I agree with the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson)—if there was one aspect of leaving the European Union to which I could see a silver lining, it would be the ability for the United Kingdom to design and deliver its own policy for supporting agriculture, food security, and the productive and environmentally sustainable management of land.
Westmorland and Lonsdale is not just my home but the home of upland farming and of our most spectacular natural assets—the lakes and the dales. After London, it is Britain’s biggest visitor destination and a vital centre of high-quality food production. How we support agriculture is of colossal importance to me and the communities that I am proud to represent.
The Bill aims to do a lot of good. The commitment to having public money for public goods is commendable and to be encouraged. Moving to enhance the already significant environmental benefits of agriculture is also right. But the detail is everything: the Bill has good potential, but it also contains the potential for some of the most disastrous unintended consequences if this House fails to act wisely and long-sightedly.
I welcome the Bill’s commitment to maintain our environmental and animal welfare standards in farming, but it makes no mention of standards for imported food from trade deals. If standards on imports are not guaranteed, our farmers will be at a competitive disadvantage. The Secretary of State must therefore ensure that all food imported into the United Kingdom is produced to at least equivalent standards on animal welfare, environmental protection and production quality.
When UNESCO granted world heritage site status to the Lake District last year, it did so in large part in recognition of the landscape management of our hill farmers. I am proud of them and I fear for them. Perhaps the biggest blind spot in this Bill is a failure to ensure that those who farm the uplands and other less favoured areas get a sustainable deal that will guarantee them a future and, crucially, draw new entrants into the industry.
The Federation of Cumbria Commoners has asked me to express its concerns about the Bill’s failure to provide an effective framework for Government to support its members. Their collective stewardship of common land has helped to create and conserve the landscape, wildlife and archaeology of the Lake district, the Pennines, the Howgill fells and the western dales.
When I was a Minister at DEFRA, I was quite shocked by some people—even those who were quite senior in the local national park—who had an aggressive attitude towards precisely the kind of farmers that the hon. Gentleman is talking about. Rewilding has its place in certain areas, but a landscape that has been farmed and created by human beings since the time of the Norse people surely needs to be supported, not attacked, by those who have responsibility for it.
I completely agree with the right hon. Gentleman. The importance of recognising that our landscape is as diverse as it is because it is managed and maintained is huge. He makes a very good point.
In my view, the Bill should state that traditional hill farming and commoning are a public good. This finely balanced system is at risk and will disappear without explicit public investment. When hill farmers have made changes to how they work to benefit the environment they should be rewarded for that too, but there must be a baseline payment, equivalent at least to the old hill farm allowance, so that they can have security and stability in the long term.
I want the Government to understand not just what farmers do but why they do it. Their chief motivation and purpose is to produce food. We think too little about food security: some 45% of the food we consume today is imported, whereas 20 years ago that figure was more like 35%. That is a very worrying trend. If UK farmers’ ability to compete is further undermined, that will only get worse.
If farmers got a fair price for their produce, there would be no need for direct payments and farmers would not want them. That is not the case—not even close. The food market is so warped by the power of supermarkets that removing direct payments to farmers could leave them entirely at the mercy of the forces of that skewed market, so the powers and scope of the Groceries Code Adjudicator must be vastly expanded to ensure an effective referee on this extremely uneven playing field.
I know it is not an either/or, but the Government should be strengthening the Groceries Code Adjudicator, not, as they propose to do in the Bill, strengthening the failing and discredited Rural Payments Agency. The Government’s proposal to phase out direct payments without a guarantee of an immediate and equivalent replacement is unwise and will not work, either for hill farmers or the country.
One issue regarding the fact that frameworks across the UK no longer need to be agreed but can be imposed is that less favoured area status makes up less than 20% in England, but more than 80% in Scotland and Wales and more than 70% in Northern Ireland. For people in those areas, direct payments are even more critical.
Indeed, and we need to understand that the fact that this has been part of our payment landscape, and therefore our farming landscape, for the last 45 years has affected the actual landscape and our ability to produce affordable food, so it will have differential impacts across different parts of the United Kingdom.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will make progress. If we combine that failure to recognise the impact of phasing out payments with the Bill’s failure to impose standards on imports, we do not see a very pretty picture for farmers or the communities in which they live. The unintended but utterly predictable consequence is that the Government will flood the market with cheap foreign imports and remove the lifeline of direct payments. Hundreds of farmers, especially hill farmers, will then go under. This is not a nice, gentle seven-year phase-out for hill farmers or those in less favoured areas; for many, it is a seven-year notice to quit the landscape altogether. When we can already meet only 55% of our food needs domestically, the last thing we need is a disastrous loss of capacity because of such a poorly thought-out and dramatic change.
If we remove direct payments for farmers without an immediate equivalent and tariffs are introduced on imports into this country, we will see a significant rise in the price of food on the shelves. The wealthiest people in this country spend 10% of their income on food, but the poorest spend 25%. Removing direct investment in farming will hit every family on a low or medium income in catastrophic and heartbreaking ways. It is shameful that we collectively preside over a society in which food bank usage is at its highest level ever. If we get the Bill wrong, the result will be greater poverty, greater need and greater misery for families who seek to budget for their weekly food shop.
That is why I fully support the NFU’s call on the Government to include the support of domestic agriculture to secure food security and stability of food supply as a cause for financial assistance. I can think of no greater public good. Food security does not need to come at the expense of caring for our land: there is no point in having food security for the next 20 years if the land is unusable after that. Biodiversity and the sustainable management of land must be central to the new systems that are devised. Alongside the lack of clarity over the transition period, there is an absence of guarantees beyond 2022. That is simply not good enough. Anyone who thinks that three years constitutes the long term knows absolutely nothing about farming.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am sorry, but I will not. The NFU and environmental groups alike want a long-term funding solution so that the issue cannot be used as a political football down the road, and they are right. If the money is not there, we may end up with a fantastic environmentally friendly farming system but no farmers left to deliver it. That is why the Liberal Democrats advocate a 25-year funding plan, to fit alongside the Government’s existing 25-year environment plan, to maintain agriculture spending beyond 2022 to at least the current level.
Helping farmers to deliver public goods and improving the productivity and resilience of UK agriculture will mean releasing farmers from the burdens of bureaucracy, badly run payment agencies and, worst of all, insecurity. The Bill is therefore well-intentioned but inadequate. If we want a rich, diverse, beautiful and bountiful ecology, we need farmers to steward it and deliver it. If we want a better environment, we need farmers. Many of the words in the Bill are good, but the detail and the understanding of farming is lacking. It reads as if it has been written in Whitehall, not Westmorland. Could do better—must do better.
I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Having spent a lifetime immersed in both the environment and farming—I grew up on a farm—this, for me, is a very exciting moment. It is an opportunity to rethink our land use policy. It is a chance to build on the health of our environment, from soil to water to air, and to set ourselves on track to produce healthy, sustainable food and reset the biodiversity gauge.
Given that a quarter of all agricultural holdings are in the south-west, producing a third of the nation’s beef and lamb, the proposals are really important for our farmers, too. They are possible only because we are leaving the EU, and they have become a reality because the Government are putting not just their aspirations, but their financial support behind this endeavour.
As other colleagues have mentioned, the Bill is very much a framework Bill, which provides the finances and the tools for us to transition out of the common agricultural policy and gives us the chance to have a dialogue in every relevant area. We can now design our own tailor-made approach and not be dictated to by 27 other countries in the joint system that we have been part of. That system has often not been suited to the UK, but to get the money—all £4 billion of it—our farmers and landowners have had to accept the system. Who would not? Who could blame them?
Does the hon. Lady recognise that the same issue exists within the United Kingdom, in that the land in Scotland, which makes up one third of the UK land mass, is utterly different from that being farmed on the south coast of England?
The hon. Lady makes a good point, but the new Bill will allow us to tailor our approach to suit every part of the UK. Wales is taking this opportunity, and schedule 3 states clearly what it will do. Interestingly, we have not heard from Scotland yet.
The real risk to Scottish farmers is the fact that the SNP Scottish Government have failed to opt in to this Bill and failed to introduce a Bill in the Scottish Parliament to allow Scottish farmers to get the support they will desperately need after Brexit. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is the SNP who are letting Scottish farmers down?
Our Scottish Conservative colleagues provide strong representation for farmers. Farming is very important to Scotland, which is a rural area. The SNP and the Scottish Parliament have really missed an opportunity to get their details down on paper so that they can play a full role in the really exciting future that this Government are creating. If it were not for the Conservative Government and our coming out of Europe—I say this even though I was a remainer—we would not have this great opportunity.
Crucially, the essence of the Bill is to move away from making payments simply for the privilege of owning land, as has been mentioned, and towards the concept of paying for public goods. That is the cornerstone of the Bill, and it is absolutely the right thing to do. The basic idea of receiving money for doing something for the public good has met with universal approval, not just from farmers but from environmentalists and right across the board with everybody I have met in Taunton Deane so far. That is true of improving the quality of our water—currently, only 14% of our rivers are classed as clean, which is absolutely shocking; planting more trees to help to reduce the speed of run-off from the hills to the Somerset levels, which will help to reduce the terrible flooding that we have had over many years; and creating new habitats to improve biodiversity and reverse the catastrophic declines in plant and animal populations that we have witnessed in our own lifetimes, as the 2016 “State of Nature” report clearly sets out.
In many cases, EU agricultural policy has been the driver for those wildlife declines, with the loss of mixed farming—grass is so important to that, as it was on the farm where I grew up—less rotation, fewer hedgerows and increased pesticide use. The increased use of pesticides has reduced the quantity of plants on which foraging insects rely; indeed, we rely on those insects to pollinate our crops. The Bill offers an opportunity for new schemes that emphasise the protection of biodiversity and help to redress those losses. Habitat creation schemes such as the one run on West Sedgemoor by the RSPB, which is producing tasty beef, creating summer water meadows and bringing back the snipe—I am proud to be the RSPB snipe champion—are really working. The Bill offers the opportunity to build on such schemes, which I welcome.
There is, however, one thing that I must ask the Minister. If farmers and environmental groups are already involved in environmental stewardship schemes, will those schemes still operate following the implementation of the Bill? Will they be allowed to run their course, or will they end with those groups then having to apply for new schemes?
The Minister will not be at all surprised to learn that I am now going to mention soil, because I have bent his ear on the subject many times. Half the soils in the east of the country are likely to become unproductive within a decade. That was highlighted in our Environmental Audit Committee report—and I see that the Committee’s Chairperson, the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), is in the Chamber. Soil erosion is a very serious issue, as is the fact that soil has been treated as a growing medium rather than a living habitat for far too long. I therefore welcome the priority that the Bill gives to soil health, and I was pleased that the Minister came to the launch of the Sustainable Soil Alliance in the House. I hope that the work that it is doing to advise on how we could monitor soil erosion or set targets to address it might influence the way in which payments are made.
The hon. Lady is a true soil evangelist, but the Government have already signed up to a target in the Paris agreement to increase soil carbon content by four parts per 1,000 every year in order to sequester more carbon into our soil. Does the hon. Lady agree that that is a public good that should be funded and subsidised through the Bill?
The hon. Lady raises an important point. As she knows, I am passionate about this issue. We need to have a conversation about all our climate change targets, including the potential net zero target that some people are talking about. The question of targets is very important: how can we pay unless we know what we are paying for? The targets that we set for the climate change commitments have worked well, and a similar model might chime with the 25-year plan and the forthcoming environment Act. I believe that many of the details will go into that Bill rather than this framework Agriculture Bill.
Payments relating to our natural heritage and culture are very welcome. My constituency contains two areas of natural beauty where people are pleading that landscape, and landscape beauty, be included in the Bill.
The Government’s commitment to funding until 2022 and for the transition period demonstrates our ongoing support for the countryside. That is obviously important, given that two thirds of farm incomes in the south-west are currently derived from basic payments. I know the Minister understands that. However, I would like to see a further commitment to future funding. God forbid that we ever change Government, but the production of beef or horticultural crops cannot be switched on like a light bulb, and farmers would like some long-term commitment.
Although the Bill does not directly list food as a public good, it does much to enable the efficient production of food. My local farmers welcome the data-gathering elements in the Bill, although, for the purpose of transparency, they would like supermarkets to be included, as well as the manufacturers and producers along the line—not just the raw-material producers. However, I welcome the data collection, and I stand by the Secretary of State’s commitment to maintaining our high food standards. That is crucial to the future. I look forward to the creation of an overarching environmental standards body—in, I believe, the environment Bill—which will hold people to account.
Let me say penultimately that, much as we love our Welsh farming colleagues—indeed, many of them come to Somerset to trade at our markets, especially Sedgemoor market, and they are very welcome—no one wants an internal competitive market to develop as a result of the flexibility offered to Welsh farmers. I am sure the Minister understands what I mean by that.
In conclusion—and thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to speak—let me say that the Bill heralds the most significant change in our land use for decades, with the finances to underpin it. It is the Conservatives who are leading the way in that regard, for farming and for the environment. I am confident that issues relating to the environment, farming and everything to do with our rural communities will dovetail in the Bill. It is absolutely the right way forward for a sustainable and healthy future. Not one of those elements can survive without the others, and on that note, I give the Bill, and all those who have worked so hard on it, my full support.