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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.]
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.