House of Commons
Thursday 18 October 2018
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
On today’s Order Paper it is noted that on 18 October 1918 the hon. Charles Henry Lyell, Royal Garrison Artillery, Member for South Edinburgh from 1910 to 1917, died while serving as Assistant Military Attaché in Washington, USA. We remember him today.
Oral Answers to Questions
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
Leaving the EU: Food and Drink Standards
DEFRA is working closely with the Food Standards Agency and the Department of Health and Social Care to ensure that the regulatory regime for food and drink standards and safety remains robust as the UK leaves the European Union, in order to continue protecting the public and retaining the confidence of consumers, businesses and trading partners overseas. The Secretary of State meets Cabinet colleagues on a weekly basis, when discussions take place on the future relationship the UK will have with the EU.
The National Audit Office’s report on DEFRA’s readiness for Brexit says that the Department
“will be unable to process the increased volume of export health certificates”
on current capacity and that
“consignments of food could be delayed at the border or prevented from leaving the UK.”
Ports will be gridlocked and the quality produce of Scottish farmers will not reach its foreign markets. There is a spreadsheet to take the place of the EU’s TRACES system—how does the Minister intend to fix this by March?
The NAO report also highlighted that there is a high degree of readiness within DEFRA. We have recruited 1,300 people to take this work forward. In my role as Minister with responsibility for food, I am working very closely with others to ensure that we will move on all these issues, whether vets or preparations at the borders.
At the Public Accounts Committee on Monday, we heard from DEFRA officials about preparedness for Brexit, and we are very concerned. One of the biggest concerns is that many businesses do not know what they will have to do to comply with the rules around Brexit. What is the Minister doing to make sure that real effort is going into telling those companies and businesses how they should be preparing?
The hon. Lady makes a very important point. The Government have been setting out technical notices to explain more about what needs to be done in readiness for a no deal scenario. Yesterday, along with the Secretary of State, I met the Food and Drink Sector Council. We are working hard to increase engagement with businesses on the back of those technical notices.
This year we saw the highest-quality fruit and veg grown on these islands rotting in the fields because there were not enough workers to pick them. Yesterday the chair of the Migration Advisory Committee said that the fruit and veg sector would shrink if its policies were followed—that would mean farmers going out of business. Does the Minister agree with him that that is a price worth paying, or does he agree with me that ending freedom of movement is a huge mistake?
I am not sure that that really fits in with the question, but an important pilot is being taken forward on seasonal workers to address the issues that the hon. Lady raises.
The changes to the woodland carbon fund and the woodland creation planning grant that we successfully piloted in 2017 have been made permanent. We also recently made the countryside stewardship woodland creation grant available all year. In addition, we are providing £5.7 million to kick-start the northern forest, and we have appointed a national tree champion to drive forward our tree planting manifesto commitments.
Does the Minister welcome the work of the Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy programme, which is providing saplings to MPs across the country to plant in their constituencies?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his characteristically enthusiastic support for that project—we would expect nothing less for the Queen’s Commonwealth Canopy initiative, which is truly excellent. I mention in particular the five saplings project, made possible by the work of the Woodland Trust, Sainsbury’s and ITV—the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) is also to be commended. Like my hon. Friend, I look forward to planting saplings in my constituency soon, in Macclesfield, and I am pleased that many other colleagues across the House will shortly be doing the same.
Trees are carbon sinks that lock in greenhouse gases while promoting biodiversity, so what steps is my hon. Friend taking to press forward with forestry investment zones for large-scale woodland creation?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question and his keen interest in the need to drive forward ambitious plans to plant more trees. He is a tree champion in his own right. Our national tree champion, Sir William Worsley, is launching the first forestry investment zone pilot in Cumbria today. That new project will help landowners to create vital new woodland and unlock the economic benefits of forestry in areas not traditionally used for tree planting. The project will also provide lessons on how best to support forestry investment.
I call Tom Tugendhat, who has Question 6. Where is the fella? He is not here. I hope he is not indisposed. I think it is more likely that the hon. Gentleman is planting a tree.
Trees play a vital role in upper catchment management, by preventing flooding. Environment Agency representatives said in a meeting last week that upper catchment management needs prioritisation. How is the Minister planning for that, and will he ensure that there is provision for it in the Budget?
I know that the hon. Lady has a keen interest in that issue. I will be working closely with the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), to take these activities forward.
I welcome the Minister’s response. On my land back home, we have planted some 3,500 trees over time, but the important thing is to have trees planted by young people. The Woodland Trust in Northern Ireland, led by Patrick Cregg, is running a scheme whereby every school will plant a tree. Has the Department had an opportunity to engage with the Woodland Trust and education providers to make that happen?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We need to get young people connected with trees and the importance of woodland, and we are working closely with the Woodland Trust on exactly that initiative.
Given the huge importance of trees to our environment and our quality of life, does the Minister agree that we must ensure that the planning system protects protected trees and woodland wherever it can when new development is being considered?
Yes, that is really important. I think my right hon. Friend will also welcome our commitment to ensure that we will see 1 million more trees in our towns and cities. Trees play a vital role not just in the countryside and more generally but in our towns and close to urban areas.
Tree planting is important for ecological diversity and protecting vital habitats. Sites of special scientific interest protect the UK’s most important places for trees and wildlife, but a Greenpeace investigation has found that almost half of SSSIs have not been examined in the last six years, as required by national guidelines. Now that the Prime Minister has announced an end to austerity, what new resources will the Minister commit to, to reverse the alarming neglect and decline of habitats and species across the UK?
That is an important issue. Natural England is focusing carefully on the SSSIs that are most at risk and will ensure that those resources are targeted, for maximum impact in those vital areas.
If the Minister cannot commit to new resources for our habitats, what commitments can we expect in the Budget to restore our beloved local parks, which are so important to the environment, health and local communities? Will the Minister confirm how much funding the Government’s parks action group has been allocated and how many of the group’s recommendations he has delivered?
Clearly we will have to wait and see what comes up in the Budget on 29 October, but we are working closely with the parks Minister on that agenda.
Water Company Performance
The water regulators—Ofwat, the Environment Agency and the Drinking Water Inspectorate—hold regular discussions with water companies about their performance. I recently had the opportunity to address water companies at the Water UK conference, and most recently I met representatives from the industry on 31 July to discuss their performance and, indeed, underperformance.
I thank the Secretary of State for that response and congratulate him on the work he has done to put pressure on water companies to close down their offshore arrangements. Will he continue to hold them to account?
Absolutely. Water companies have taken advantage of offshore arrangements, which may have been in the interests of some of those who receive dividends, but have not been in the interests of consumers. Those arrangements are now ending.
What plans does the Secretary of State have to build more public drinking fountains across the UK?
I will not be building them myself, but—[Interruption.]
That is extremely disappointing.
With your permission, Mr Speaker, perhaps at Holland Park comprehensive we could make it part of the design and technology projects that our respective children are engaged in, to ensure that there are drinking fountains in west London and beyond.
We are working with water companies and other commercial operators to ensure that drinking fountains are more widespread. It was a great Victorian innovation to bring clean drinking water to everyone and ensure that we did not have to rely on private provision for the very stuff of life. We will ensure that there are more drinking fountains, and further steps will be announced later this year.
Some 3 billion litres of water a day are leaking out of water companies’ infrastructure pipes, which is enough to fill 1,273 Olympic swimming pools. Private companies have invested a lot of money in infrastructure in the past, but are they now spending too much on shareholders and chief executives, and not enough on actually securing the infrastructure? We need to save water, especially at a time of drought.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the things I have said to the water companies is that in the past few years they have spent far too much on financial engineering and not enough on real engineering. As a result, new targets have been set to reduce leakage in order to both protect the environment and help consumers. One thing that would not help consumers, I am afraid, is Labour’s programme to renationalise the water companies, which would mean taxpayers’ money going into the hands of the same shareholders, rather than being spent on our environment.
The Environment Agency’s welcome and overdue plans for flood defences in Kendal suggest that they will be built to withstand a one-in-100-year storm event, yet the water companies, such as United Utilities, are required to meet only a one-in-30-year storm event. That means we could be at the mercy of drain waters while being protected from our rivers. Will the Secretary of State force the water companies to delve into their vast profits and keep communities such as Kendal, Burneside, Grange and Windermere safe from flooding?
That is a very fair point made in a characteristically acute way by the hon. Gentleman. I know that he has been in correspondence with the Minister responsible, and we will do everything we can to ensure that communities are protected and water companies such as United Utilities live up to their responsibilities.
On 27 May, 300 homes in my constituency were badly affected by a one-in-900-year flooding event. In response to my concerns, Severn Trent has fitted new depth monitors in their water pipes. Is that not precisely the sort of investment that we need the water industry to make in the face of the challenge of climate change?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely correct. First, I should congratulate Liv Garfield of Severn Trent Water for the progressive measures that she has taken, which my right hon. Friend mentions. More broadly, the challenge of climate change—as graphically pointed out by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and by the chair of the Environment Agency, Sir James Bevan—requires us all to take further steps to make sure that our communities are safe.
Is the Secretary of State concerned about the quantity of raw sewage that is being discharged into our rivers by many water companies?
Yes, absolutely. Remedial action must be taken.
Will the Secretary of State ensure that lessons are learned from last winter’s disruption to water supplies for many communities? One of the great problems last year was the inability of the water companies to communicate to local residents what was actually happening. Will the Secretary of State ensure that those lessons are learned, and that that is not repeated should such a circumstance happen this year?
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. Earlier this year, the Minister responsible had two roundtables with water companies to make sure that appropriate lessons were learned. In particular, Members of this House from across the divide made it clear that Thames Water in particular needed to pull its socks up.
Recycling has been increasing since 2010. Over 70% of packaging has been recycled or recovered, which is ahead of the EU target of 60%, and the figure for plastic packaging, at 45%, is double the EU target. England’s household recycling rate has also continued to increase, but we need to do more. We will be publishing our resources and waste strategy shortly.
I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on the birth of her beautiful baby boy, James, a couple of weeks ago.
Fashion should not cost the earth, but every year 300,000 tonnes of garments are disposed into landfill. Will the Minister ensure that the forthcoming resources and waste strategy includes something to force clothing producers to take account of the end use of the garments that they produce?
I know that is the subject of an inquiry that the hon. Lady’s Environmental Audit Committee is undertaking at the moment. The Government, with our partner the Waste and Resources Action Programme, have been working with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation on this issue, and I am sure she will recognise how it is being addressed.
It is important to improve recycling rates in areas such as on-the-go packaging. Does the Minister agree that in this area it is better to extend the existing packaging recovery note system, which keeps funds within the system for improvement, recycling and restructuring, than to introduce an expensive deposit return scheme in which funds will be lost, including on reverse vending machines that cost up to £32,000 each?
My hon. Friend has great experience of the packaging industry, so I know he speaks with authority. We are reforming the PRN system, but we also believe the deposit return scheme is an appropriate way to increase the amount of recycling and to reduce littering. That will, however, be subject to consultation.
If I can encourage the hon. Member for City of Durham (Dr Blackman-Woods) to overcome any unnecessary shyness, and in light of the fact that we are not likely to reach question 13, I would say to her that her question is very similar to this question, so perhaps she would like to make her point now.
Plastic waste exports happen because overseas processers recognise the value of how it can be used. I am conscious that plastic with a certain contamination level no longer goes to China. Other countries have taken it up, but of course we want more to be recycled here in the UK. The hon. Lady will see more in our resources and waste strategy, which will be published very soon.
Does my hon. Friend plan to rescue humanity from the blight of disposable nappies?
Disposable nappies have become a consumer convenience. I am very pleased that Procter & Gamble has invested in technology, which we see in Italy. We are encouraging it to bring it here, not only for disposable nappies but other forms of absorbent hygiene products. We can do something about this, but I am not convinced that we will be seeing an end to the disposable nappy any time soon.
One of the barriers to the successful recycling of plastic is that many simple packaging materials are actually made up of composite plastic with a number of polymers, which is particularly difficult to recycle. Will the Minister consider bringing in regulations to simplify this packaging?
I am pleased to say that the Government have been working with a mixture of organisations, retailers and manufacturers to try to simplify the polymers that are being used. Technical innovations will need to happen, but I am confident that some good news will be coming out very shortly.
In addition to the Government’s ban on microbeads in rinse-off personal care products, and removing nearly 16 billion plastic bags from circulation with the 5p carrier charge, plastic pollution in our marine environment is a global challenge, which is why I was pleased that we had the blue charter at the Commonwealth summit this year, and that the UK and Vanuatu are to establish the Commonwealth clean oceans alliance. The Global Plastic Action Partnership was initiated in the United Kingdom and was launched in New York last month at the UN General Assembly. It will be instrumental in delivering those commitments.
We know that plastic pollution is a problem at home and across the globe. In developing countries especially, it contributes to blocked drains, increasing flooding and disease and exacerbating poverty. Will the Minister provide a bit more detail on how the Global Plastic Action Partnership will help to alleviate pollution and poverty?
At the Commonwealth summit, we highlighted more than £66 million that we will be spending to help Commonwealth countries in particular to tackle this issue, including by increasing the professionalism of waste management. The Global Plastic Action Partnership goes beyond that to cover the world. It is a public-private partnership. I am pleased to say that we have invested £2.5 million in it, and we are now getting funding in from Canada, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and Dow Chemical—and more companies are joining.
The amount of UK plastic going into our oceans remains an international scandal. Following the publication of the long-awaited 25-year environment plan, will the Minister set out when we will see legislation to enshrine those warm words into law and to make sure that action on plastic is not only firm but in the statute book and enforceable against those who are still putting plastic into our oceans at home and abroad?
It is suggested that about 80% of the plastic litter that goes into oceans around our country—it goes out of our rivers and into the sea—comes from land-based litter, so it is something on which we are focused with our litter strategy, and we will keep working on that. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, the Prime Minister has announced that there will be an environment Bill in the next Session.
European Food Safety Authority
After our departure from the EU, our priority will be to maintain the UK’s high standards of food safety. We are considering options for the future of risk assessment and scientific advice in the UK as part of the exit negotiations. We are seeking to retain the long tradition of close scientific collaboration with the EFSA. The Secretary of State meets Cabinet colleagues weekly at Cabinet, and through relevant Sub-Committees, where discussions take place on the future relationship that the UK will have with the EU and associated bodies.
I appreciate that the Minister has already addressed a similar question from the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), but this contribution should not be seen in any way as evidence of collusion between me and the Scottish National party. As we move from—to use Fintan O’Toole’s phrase—the “epic dream” of Brexit to the nightmare reality, we find ourselves having to deal with more and more aspects of minutiae. I implore the Minister not to forget the dairy farmers of Northern Ireland and, particularly in this area, to concentrate on discussions with Cabinet colleagues so that we do not let down those dairy farmers, who face a terrible future as a result of that disastrous decision of June 2016.
I had never really thought of the hon. Gentleman as colluding. He is incredibly independently minded—we respect him for that—and forthright in his views.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. We will do all that we can to support dairy farmers across the UK, not least in Cheshire, where I also have many dairy farmers. Of course, we will be working across the board not only to ensure that the best possible standards of food safety are maintained, but to support agriculture as we move to a world outside the EU.
Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme
The Government have announced that we will introduce a new pilot scheme for 2019-20 to enable up to 2,500 non-European economic area migrant workers to come into the UK to undertake seasonal employment in horticulture. On 18 September, DEFRA published further details on the pilot and opened the selection process for operators through a request for information. The industry had until 17 October to respond, and we will now be working with colleagues in the Home Office to develop the pilot.
I thank the Minister very much for his reply. Recently I visited PDM Produce, which is in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard). It produces millions of lettuces a month for the UK market and imports from Europe in the off-season. It is really concerned because while it welcomes the new pilot, that is not nearly enough to ensure that it can continue to produce for the UK market, which could have an impact on our balance of payments and the prices of lettuces and salad in the shops.
My hon. Friend raises an important point, but he should acknowledge that this is a pilot involving the small number of 2,500 people. Typically, when the previous SAW scheme ran from 1945 until 2013, in the region of 20,000 to 30,000 people came in under the scheme each year.
The charity Focus on Labour Exploitation—FLEX—has warned that the scheme to which the Minister referred involving temporary visas for non-EU workers to work on British farms could lead to a sharp rise in exploitation if there are ties to a particular employer. Later today, to mark Anti-Slavery Day, I will lead a debate on ending the exploitation and slavery of workers in the supermarket supply chain. Is the Minister aware of those concerns and will he follow this afternoon’s debate? This is one of the worst sectors for modern slavery and the exploitation of workers, so can he make sure that he is on the case?
The Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority regulates all labour providers, including by looking at issues such as accommodation and its costs. There was no evidence that this particular scheme was abused, but there are issues of the type of abuse that the hon. Lady talked about. The GLAA always takes strict action when it finds that is necessary.
Why on earth can we not find enough British workers to do these seasonal agricultural jobs?
We have full employment and the lowest unemployment since the early 1970s. It is a very scarce labour market, and it has always been the case that some sectors in horticulture have required overseas labour—seasonal labour—to support their needs.
Given the massive gap between how many seasonal agricultural workers are required and the numbers involved in the minuscule pilot, how will the Minister cherry-pick the minority of businesses that can work on the pilot and have their fruit and veg picked, while the majority will see the fruit and veg left to rot in the fields?
I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. We still have free movement from the European Union at the moment, and most businesses are able to meet their labour needs from the EU. The pilot will be for non-EEA countries, and if it is successful, we shall be able to roll out a broader scheme.
Animal Cruelty: Prison Sentences
The Government will increase the custodial maximum penalty for animal cruelty from six months’ to five years’ imprisonment. The legislation needed to implement the increase will be introduced as soon as parliamentary time allows.
Ten months ago, the Secretary of State told me that he would examine proposals to expedite legislation to introduce an increase in the sentence for animal cruelty. Given cross-party support, the support of the general public and the brilliant campaigning of Battersea Dogs & Cats Home, can the Secretary of State now give us a timetable for when that will actually happen?
I know that the Leader of the House, who will be here shortly, will have heard that eloquent plea from the hon. Lady, and I add my voice to hers.
Animal cruelty extends to the way in which an animal is slaughtered. When will there be legislation to ensure that halal meat is properly labelled in supermarkets?
My hon. Friend raises an issue of great concern to many. One of the things that we are doing is consulting religious communities and others to establish what changes, if any, may be required.
There is a fairly simple way of ensuring that this measure is implemented: introducing and then supporting a private Member’s Bill. Will the Secretary of State support any Member who introduces such a Bill?
That decision is above my pay grade—it would be made by the Chief Whip and the Leader of the House—but, as I indicated to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), I am passionately keen to see an end to animal cruelty.
Mike Wood? Not here. Well, we cannot conclude these proceedings without hearing from Mr Tom Pursglove.
Forests: Development Leases
In response to concerns that have been raised about Forest Holidays, my Department has initiated a review of the governance and commercial arrangements for its management of its estate.
Local people in Corby and East Northamptonshire feel strongly that Fineshade wood, which is stunning, tranquil and extremely well used, must be preserved for generations to come. Will my right hon. Friend agree to meet me, and representatives of the Friends of Fineshade, to discuss what can be done to ensure that Forest Holidays’ long-standing interest in the site finally comes to an end?
My hon. Friend represents some of the most attractive woodland in the country. Not just Fineshade wood but Rockingham forest make Corby and East Northamptonshire a place of pilgrimage for many who want seclusion and peace in a rural environment. I should be delighted to meet his constituents, and I think that his concerns are very well placed.
You and I, Mr Speaker, are very keen to ensure that there is appropriate protection for endangered species. We all know that charismatic megafauna and apex predators—the big beasts that attract public attention, and those at the top of the food chain—are increasingly under threat. That was why, at last week’s illegal wildlife trade conference, a London declaration commanded the support of more than 50 nations, all pledged to support our world-leading ivory ban and the other measures that we take to ensure that the species that we value are protected as part of an ecosystem that we can all cherish.
I am deeply obliged to the Secretary of State, I am sure.
How does the Government’s strong support for fracking, against the wishes of communities who are worried about their local environment, fit in with the Secretary of State’s vision of a green Brexit?
It fits in perfectly. One thing we all know is that we will need a mix of energy sources in the future. Thanks to the leadership of this Government—I must single out for praise my right hon. Friend the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth—we have seen a dramatic reduction in carbon dioxide emissions alongside economic growth, but hydrocarbons are a critical part of our future energy mix, and hydraulic fracturing will be an important part of that. We need only look at countries such as Germany that have, as a direct result of pursuing the wrong policies, increased greenhouse gas emissions and also not played their part in both dealing with climate change and ensuring that we have the required electricity for ultra low emission vehicles and everything else that will be part of a green future. It is absolutely critical that we are hard-headed and realistic; Conservative Members are, unlike sadly, on this one occasion, the Opposition.
We are having an oratorical feast today. It is just a terrible shame that the right hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes) is not here, because I feel sure that he would have added to the flow of oratory.
I thank my hon. Friend and other Scottish Conservative Members who pressed for this review and collaborated to make sure its terms of reference were right. As a result, they have guaranteed a brighter future for Scottish farmers with a level of funding in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that is higher than that in England absolutely guaranteed in the future. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the Scottish Government and their Minister, Fergus Ewing, who is a great man in many ways, have, sadly, missed the opportunity to put forward an amendment to our Agriculture Bill in order to ensure that Scottish farmers have certainty in the future. Welsh Labour has collaborated and its statesmanship is to be commended; what a pity that once again the Scottish Government are letting down rural Scotland.
When did the Minister receive the Godfray review on the Government’s bovine TB strategy? When will he publish it, and will he commit to publishing it in full?
Recently, shortly and yes.
We are grateful.
My hon. Friend is a great champion of the environment, especially in Cheltenham. He will be conscious that this is not a straightforward scheme to introduce. I recognise that many people will have seen such a scheme in other countries around the world, and while the front end is very simple, the back end is more challenging. We want a system that works across the four nations of the United Kingdom, and we are continuing to work on that.
I received a copy of that report just this week. The Dogs Trust does fantastic work. We have worked with it already on dealing with some of the problems of puppy farming, and once we leave the EU—when I hope we will be a listed country for pet travel—we can also review other steps that we might take.
The Secretary of State will remember meeting me recently to discuss the issue of pollution in the River Windrush, which is a matter of great concern to the people of West Oxfordshire, as shown by the strong attendance at West Oxfordshire District Council’s recent water day. I applaud my right hon. Friend’s speech in March in which he took the water companies to task for their performance, but will he elaborate on what steps he is taking to ensure that they improve their performance across all areas?
I was grateful to my hon. Friend for raising his constituents’ concerns about the condition of the River Windrush, and he is absolutely right to do so. We have subsequently got a commitment through Ofwat, the regulator, for all water companies to spend more on making sure that the environment that they safeguard is protected.
The balance between the two is delicate. What we must do is recycle more.
I commend the Government on banning microbeads, but may I urge them to now turn their attention to microfibres, Mr Speaker? I do not know whether Mrs Speaker does the washing, but every time we do a wash, 700,000 microfibres could go down the drain. I am joining the Women’s Institute to host an event on this in Parliament on 30 October; will the Minister join us?
I always feel better informed, and almost improved as a human being, when I hear the hon. Lady offer her disquisitions on these important matters.
I should like to thank my hon. Friend, who was an excellent Parliamentary Private Secretary in our Department. She is now able to ask questions in the Chamber again. I have already met the WI to talk about this matter, and there are certain things that people can do, such as using fabric conditioner to reduce the amount of microfibres that get released from synthetic clothing. She will be aware that we are considering a number of issues, and that is why we have had a recent call for evidence on the impact of tyres and brakes, which are also a notable source of microfibres in our marine systems.
I know that they talk of little else in Crail, Anstruther and Leuchars. The one thing I believe in is that it is vital that we leave the European Union at the earliest possible point so that we can ensure that we are outside the common agricultural policy and the common fisheries policy, and that we take back control to ensure that Scotland’s food and drink manufacturers, along with food and drink manufacturers across the United Kingdom, can enjoy the benefits of being global Britain.
It is very good to see the hon. Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood). I understand why he was delayed, but it is good to see him here in the Chamber.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. We know that 82% of the beer that is drunk in our pubs is brewed in the UK. Jodie Kidd and other publicans will be presenting a 105,000-signature petition to Downing Street today to back the Long Live the Local campaign on beer duty. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the Chancellor is fully aware of the contribution that our beer and pub sectors make to British farming, as well as to the wider economy and society?
My hon. Friend does brilliant work as the chairman of the all-party beer group, and he is absolutely right to say that we must look at beer duty. In particular, a case has been forcefully made for looking at duty relief for small brewers in order to maximise growth in that sector, so that we can all enjoy great British beer.
The European Food Safety Authority currently sets standards and issues detailed guidance on the safety and composition of infant formula. Can the Minister tell me what is going to happen once we leave the EU?
Yes: we will do considerably better.
Since Tuesday morning, a burst pipe has been spewing raw sewage into the sea near the UK’s premier surfing beach, Fistral, in Newquay. Despite taking some initial action, South West Water now says that it will take several days to resolve the issue. Does the Secretary of State share my concern that this is going on for so long, and what action can we take to hold water companies to account to prevent such things from happening?
I absolutely am concerned, and I know that the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), will be talking to South West Water later today to see what can be done.
We have just had a reference to water, so we have to hear from Ben Lake.
Will the independent review into the allocation of domestic farm support, which was announced this week by the Government, also consider processes by which future financial frameworks will be agreed? To that end, would the formation of a dedicated intergovernmental body be something that the Government could explore?
The hon. Gentleman has made this point before, and it is a very fair one. I know that the Welsh Government have an opportunity to nominate a member of the panel, and I hope that that panel member will have an opportunity to talk to the hon. Gentleman about that matter.
I welcome the Minister’s earlier comments about seasonal agricultural workers, but can he tell the House what discussions he has had with the Home Secretary on the future labour requirements of the seafood processing sector, and the food processing sector in general, particularly in areas of low unemployment such as the north-east of Scotland?
I am aware that the catching sector in Scotland has some particular issues around the maritime exemption and Filipino crews. That is something that colleagues in the Home Office are looking at. When it comes to the needs of the food industry more broadly, the report by the Migration Advisory Committee pointed out that existing EU citizens will be able to stay, and also that tier 5 youth mobility can be used in this case.
On 20 March, at the Dispatch Box, the Secretary of State told us that
“in December 2020 we will be negotiating fishing opportunities as a third country and independent coastal state”.—[Official Report, 20 March 2018; Vol. 638, c. 163.]
Given this morning’s comments by the Prime Minister and the Minister for the Cabinet Office about extending the transitional period, how confident is the Secretary of State now that he will be able to meet that undertaking?
I was encouraged by my right hon. Friend’s reference to the small brewer relief scheme. Does he agree that it is one of the factors behind the amazing growth and success of the UK’s craft brewing sector, which includes such brilliant breweries as the Bluestone Brewing Company in my constituency?
I know that brewery, not from having visited it, but from having sampled its products. It does amazing work, and my right hon. Friend is right to champion craft beer. Mr Speaker, I hope that you and I will have the opportunity to share some very soon.
Well, that sounds like an invitation that I cannot possibly resist.
Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the schoolchildren and adult volunteers who spent two days planting a new orchard at the Charterhouse, one of Coventry’s medieval buildings, as part of a larger restoration and renewal scheme? Does he agree that the orchard is a fantastic community initiative and, as part of the wider project, a great educational resource for my city?
If I may say so, it is an exemplary use of parliamentary time to praise young people for doing the right thing, and I salute the hon. Lady for reminding us of what young people can do to inspire us about the future of nature.
The Secretary of State’s previous answer leads nicely into my question because he recently visited my constituency and met young Alfie Royston, who is doing so much to encourage other young people in the area to deal with the menace of plastic. Does he agree that we need to do more to harness the energy and enthusiasm of our young people in order to combat the problem?
Young Alfie is an inspirational leader and voice for environmental improvement. His school, Tollbar Academy, is one of the best performing in the country. Both that school and that young man are lucky to have in my hon. Friend an effective champion and a brilliant constituency Member.
Every community has the right to a decent, clean and safe environment. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the My Coldhurst Group and the Ghazali Trust on cleaning up their areas to make them safe for young people to play in?
Absolutely. We all have a part to play, and I congratulate the hon. Gentleman. He had a distinguished track record in local government before coming to this place, and his leadership in this area is exemplary.
Thank you. Splendid.
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Wonga Loan Book
I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for his extensive work on this issue. The Archbishop of Canterbury has been in discussions with the charity and finance sectors about how to minimise the potential harm to Wonga’s former customers who are unable to pay back their loans. We are hopeful that debt collection best practice will be applied in recovering any outstanding debts.
I thank the right hon. Lady for that reply. With reference to the written answer she gave me about how the commissioners are using their huge portfolio of funds to push firms in the right direction, does she accept that the list of firms whose annual general meetings the commissioners turned up at to push social justice was short and rather disappointing? Will she meet me urgently to see how that programme can be extended?
I am happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman, and I would have been delighted to discuss his idea about the Wonga loan book before it was in the public domain. The Church of England paid close attention to his proposal and took the view that others are better placed to take the matter forward. However, going to AGMs is not the only intervention that Church Commissioners can make when trying to influence business and corporate policy in an ethical direction. That can also be done in writing and meetings do take place with a large number of companies.
To reduce future reliance on loan companies such as Wonga, what is the Church of England doing to encourage personal financial education in its schools?
That is a good question. We obviously want to try to prevent the sort of situation that has arisen for Wonga’s customers. The Church of England’s primary focus is on tackling indebtedness in three ways: teaching children about financial literacy through the Just Finance Foundation, working to increase access to responsible credit, and supporting organisations such as Christians Against Poverty, which provides advice and debt counselling.
What else can be done to get more Church of England investment into ethical businesses? Could the Church play a hands-on role in assisting ethical businesses in some of our most disadvantaged communities?
The Church Commissioners are advised by the ethical investment advisory group and a very clear direction is given to asset managers about the sectors of the economy that the Church will not invest in on ethical grounds—for example, pornography and tobacco. The Church has recently played very close attention to the practice of the extractive industries and has had not a little success through its shareholder engagement in getting companies involved to change their policy towards tackling climate change.
The Church of England welcomes the appointment of Lord Ahmad as the Prime Minister’s special envoy to promote religious freedom; the Church called for this and it fulfils a long-standing request from faith communities in this country. I look forward to working closely with him. Next month, the Church of England plans to convene a reference group between its bishops and staff, the legal profession, theologians, ethicists and academics to explore the issues of religious freedom.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the recent landmark unanimous judgment of the Supreme Court in the case of Lee v. Ashers Baking Company Ltd and others and the religious freedom it has confirmed for Christians here in the UK not to be coerced into expressing views contrary to their sincerely held biblical beliefs?
Whatever one’s views on marriage, everyone should be equal before the law and, of course, I would argue, equal in God’s sight. The Church of England agrees that no one should suffer discrimination in the provision of goods and services on the grounds of age, race, gender, sexuality or any other personal characteristic. I think that it is striking that the Supreme Court found that there was no discrimination in this case, but instead found that the key issue was the right to freedom of expression.
What additional measures does the Church intend to try to put in place to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to visit a place of worship on their preferred day?
It may be of interest to the hon. Gentleman to know that yesterday the Archbishop of Canterbury made a speech in the House of Lords about religious tolerance. The Church has consistently made the case that people should be able to worship unimpeded in this country according to their faith. The Archbishop said something very telling; he said that society needs to learn how to disagree well and that we need a society where rich beliefs and traditions can rub up against each other and against secular ideology in mutual challenge and respect.
What work is the Church of England doing with other Christian Churches and other faiths—with Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and so on—to stand united on behalf of religious freedom around the world and against the persecution of religious minorities in every country, whatever the majority faith? I have to say with great sadness that Christians are the most persecuted minorities around the world.
As hon. Members will know from this Question Time, the Anglican Church around the world regularly speaks up on behalf of persecuted Christians. I regularly take questions from hon. Members about countries in which persecution is an issue. Last Saturday, the Archbishop of Canterbury was invited to speak in Nigeria ahead of the elections there to call for peace. He never misses an opportunity to make the case for persecuted Christians around the world.
As the right hon. Lady knows, people of all faiths and none across the world are subject to persecution for their religion or beliefs. Can she share with the House what the Church of England is doing to support the welfare of non-Christian communities around the world and to advocate for their right to freedom of religion or belief?
I think that particularly in the middle east, where Christians are often a persecuted minority, we speak up regularly about their plight. The Anglican Church also speaks out on the persecution of other denominations. The campaign that Christians have supported for the better protection of the Yazidi minority is just one example in that region of how we must be prepared to speak up for others.
The recently published commission on religious education set out a framework for updating RE and teaching the importance of religious freedoms. What steps is the Church of England taking to implement its findings?
The Church is very supportive of improved religious literacy in our schools. If ever there was a time to understand better the world we live in, it is now. This is the time when we need to equip our children, whatever their faith or background, to better understand what sometimes underpins the conflicts that exist around the world. So this is a timely intervention and I am pleased we have moved away from a now rather old-fashioned view that, if we just stamped out the teaching of religion, everything would be fine—nothing could be further from the truth.
House of Commons Commission
The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
Northern Estate Programme
Work has started on changes to Commissioner’s Yard Gate, where an additional secure vehicle access point for deliveries and construction traffic is being constructed. Planning approval and listed building consent have been obtained for preparatory work on 1 Derby Gate. This building will be refurbished and adapted to make it suitable to be used for accommodation for Members, and I believe work will start around the end of this month, when the last occupants are moved out.
We missed an opportunity with the refurbishment of the Elizabeth Tower, when the work was given to a known blacklisting company. May I therefore ask the hon. Gentleman and the House of Commons Commission whether consideration will be given in the contracts being drawn up for the Northern Estate project to ensuring that companies that are unrepentant blacklisters are not allowed to do work on this site?
I think we will continue with the procedures we have used before and pick the suitable candidate to do the suitable work on the basis of a number of measures.
I know from speaking to a number of parliamentary colleagues that certain aspects of the estate, including the Northern Estate, are not great for people with disabilities. What work is being done to make sure this place is more accessible, particularly for colleagues who have a disability?
Sorry—this must be something to do with my antipodean background—but could the hon. Gentleman please repeat the question, because I did not follow it?
I am very popular today. I was saying that a number of parliamentary colleagues who have disabilities find it difficult getting around certain parts of the estate. Given that we are doing this refurbishment work, what can be done to make sure that those with a disability are able to move around more freely and that this place is accessible?
Sorry, but could the hon. Gentleman please do it very slowly, in an antipodean English?
I think the answer might be that the hon. Gentleman could reply in writing, when he reads the record.
I will try to get this on the first go—
Oh no, you’re Welsh! [Laughter.]
I am Welsh, so God help the hon. Gentleman. Will he confirm that, as part of the Northern Estate refurbishments, he will be doing his utmost, as will the commission, to make sure that we use local procurement, find as much of the workforce as we can from within the United Kingdom and make sure that where there are skills gaps we work with the further and higher education sector to find training for local employees and groups?
That makes eminent sense to me. I know one of the firms particularly well and it is using that approach, particularly for training, including of apprentices, so that we can benefit as a community as well.
Public Accounts Commission
The hon. Member for Gainsborough, the Chairman of the Public Accounts Commission, was asked—
Leaving the EU: National Audit Office
Brexit is a major task for Departments, and over the past 18 months the NAO has produced 15 reports looking at aspects of Brexit. Recent NAO work has provided evaluations of progress at the Department for Transport and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. In the coming years, the NAO will continue to scrutinise the work of Departments as they implement Brexit. The UK’s exiting the EU has also led to new financial audit work, not least the audits of the Department for Exiting the European Union and the Department for International Trade. The NAO currently undertakes audit work on the UK’s administration of funds paid under the European common agricultural policy. That work will end after the UK leaves the EU.
I thank my hon. Friend for his comprehensive answer. I know he shares my view that the sooner we leave the EU, the better and that a longer transition is totally unacceptable. Does he agree that it is important that the NAO is able to work with similar bodies, both in the EU and outside it, post Brexit?
In this job, I shall not be tempted down the path of transition, but I can confirm that the NAO will be just as free to share good practice and will continue to compare notes with both European and international audit bodies. The NAO is an active member of the International Organisation of Supreme Audit Institutions, which promotes good practice among Government auditors worldwide, and it is also part of a European regional group of supreme audit institutes. Those strong professional links will not be affected by Brexit, so that is another small plank of “Project Fear” done away with.
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Churchyards: Community Use
This year, the Church Urban Fund showed that mental health and loneliness are a growing issue in our local communities. Parishes are being encouraged to use their churchyards and green spaces to support community gardening projects to promote wellbeing, caring for their community’s mind, body and spirit. The Church of England is working with the Church Times, the Guild of Health and St Raphael, and the Conservation Foundation to launch the Green Health awards to showcase best practice.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer. Paignton churchyard is one of the most historic and beautiful places in Torbay, yet the cost of maintaining safe access to it for the community can end up falling on the congregation. What support does the Church of England offer to its local parishes to ensure that they can maintain and enhance access to such special places?
In respect of where the responsibility for safe access lies, there is a distinction between churchyards that remain open for use, which are the Church of England’s responsibility, and those that are now full, for which the responsibility shifts to local government. In the case my hon. Friend raises, the Church of England would be very supportive if it is still an active churchyard, so to speak.
I am delighted to say that in my hon. Friend’s diocese there are two Green Health award nominees: St Sidwell’s church in Exeter and All Saints in Okehampton. I encourage him to look at other churches in this constituency that might be candidates for such awards.
House of Commons Commission
The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
Emergency Childcare Provision
It costs some £54,000 annually.
The measure to introduce emergency childcare fills me with some nervousness. If Officers of the House or, indeed, Members need emergency support, we should be inculcating a culture of providing those Officers of the House with time off to deal with their children, rather than encouraging them to buy in childcare when that may not be the right thing to do. In addition to the costs, how many Members or members of the House staff have availed themselves of and drawn down this emergency childcare provision?
My cynicism matches the hon. Lady’s cynicism, but it is a trial. I shall write to her with the actual figures because I was not able to get them, although I was staggered to find out that the service gives parents in the House the opportunity to access 1,450 nurseries, 2,900 child minders, 1,000 holiday clubs and hundreds of nannies. As a parent, which the hon. Lady is, she will realise that sometimes everything goes wrong with childcare and, going by my experience with my children, who are now grown up, it is always at the last, disastrous minute.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
Breaches of Electoral Rules: Fines
The Electoral Commission has ongoing dialogue with the Minister for the Constitution and has raised the issue of the cap on its ability to levy proportionate fines. The commission would like its maximum fine to be increased to a level that provides a genuine deterrent to campaigners who may be tempted to break the UK’s political finance laws.
I thank the hon. Lady for that answer and welcome that response. The Scottish National party is the only major party never to have been fined. As the hon. Lady pointed out, the Electoral Commission has complained that the fines issued to other parties did not match their crimes. Yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) asked the Prime Minister about the clear breaches of electoral law in the EU referendum. When does the Committee expect tougher legislation to be introduced to prevent the Vote Leave-type of misconduct from happening again?
The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the fact that the commission has repeatedly warned that the ability to fine campaigners a maximum of only £20,000 per offence could increasingly become seen as the cost of doing business for well-resourced political parties and campaigners. The Minister for the Constitution wrote to the commission in response to its recent report on digital campaigning and said that the Government would carefully consider the recommendation. The commission continues to urge the Government to introduce legislation to strengthen its sanctioning powers for future elections and referendums.
Last year, figures from the Electoral Commission showed that there were very few cases, or indeed allegations, of electoral fraud. Does that not demonstrate that the perception of electoral fraud is far, far greater than the actuality of electoral fraud?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. No one wants to see barriers put in place to participating in elections and referendums. The commission has been involved in looking at the pilots that were undertaken around voter ID in recent elections and it will continue to make recommendations to Government to make sure that all people are able to take part in elections.
My constituents have asked me who the Electoral Commission is accountable to, because it seems to have completely ignored my constituents in the recent consultation on boundary changes.
Through the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission, the Electoral Commission reports to this House. I am sure that the commission will be happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman to discuss any concerns that he or his constituents may have on any issues of electoral law, but issues around boundaries are not within the remit of the Electoral Commission.
The instances of alleged frauds around Vote Leave are very high profile, but what more can be done to target local government elections, where often it feels on the ground that the spending limits are being breached and nobody is challenging this to ensure the integrity of local elections?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. There will be occasions where such matters are a matter for the relevant police force. I am sure that the commission would encourage anyone with evidence of misconduct or breaches of electoral law to make that report to the relevant authority. I am also sure that the commission would be happy to discuss any concern that she might have directly with her.
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
First World War Centenary
This, I think, will be the last set of questions before we reach 11 November, which will be the culmination of four years of the Church of England marking the centenary of world war one. On that day, we will be encouraging parishes to ring their bells and commemorate bells and to commemorate every name on the war memorial. The Church has been distributing national resources to every parish with suggested liturgies, and also supporting the “Ringing Remembers” bell-ringing campaign. At an earlier Question Time, I mentioned that even hon. Members might like to consider becoming a bell ringer to mark such an auspicious occasion.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. I grew up with my great grandmother, who lived through the first world war, and I knew some of her friends who were widowed in it and some of her friends who never married because of it. Will she ask the Church of England to remember the home front in its thanksgiving services?
The home front was a very important part of the great war and we should remember, as we do, not just the lives laid down in conflict but the sacrifices made by so many. May I use this opportunity to remind hon. Members present that the Parliament choir will be singing jointly with the choir of the German Parliament in the event to mark the centenary of the Armistice on the evening of Wednesday 31 October? As I understand it, every seat in Westminster Hall has now been sold, but there is always an opportunity for returns, if hon. Members have not thought to come to that event. I think and hope that it will be a very special occasion.
Soldiers of all faiths and of no faith came together to help us in the great war. What plans does the Church have to include all faiths in this commemoration, so that we can bring people together?
The resources I referred to on the Church website to assist parishes in preparing for the marking of the Armistice include a really interesting monologue entitled, “Steps towards Reconciliation”, which looks at ways to bring people of very different backgrounds together. The Archbishop of Canterbury supported the call by the former Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, that all faiths be represented at the Cenotaph to show, in an act of solidarity, that people of all faiths and of none will never forget the sacrifice that was made to keep us free.
Employment and Support Allowance Underpayments
(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions if she will make a statement on the updated figures on the employment and support allowance underpayments.
The Department is correcting some historical underpayments of ESA that arose while migrating people from incapacity benefit to employment and support allowance. We realise how important it is to get this matter fixed. The mistakes clearly should not have happened and it is vital that the situation is sorted as quickly as possible.
For the initial stage of the exercise, we expect to review around 320,000 cases, of which around 105,000 are likely to be due arrears. We now have a team of more than 400 staff working through these cases and have paid around £120 million of arrears. We expect to complete the vast majority of this part of the exercise by April 2019, and we have to date completed all cases where an individual is terminally ill and has responded to the review, thereby ensuring that they receive due priority. The additional cases will be undertaken throughout the course of 2019.
The announcement in July to pay cases back to the point of conversion requires us to review an additional 250,000 cases, of which we estimate around 75,000 could be due arrears. We will undertake this work throughout the course of 2019. An additional 400 members of staff will be joining the team throughout this month and November, and we will be assigning further staff throughout the review of the 250,000 cases. That will enable us to complete this very important activity at pace.
The Department has prioritised checking the claims of individuals who, from our systems, we know to be terminally ill. To date, we have completed all cases from the initial 320,000. Where an individual is terminally ill and has responded to the review, we want to ensure that they get that money as soon as possible. We are therefore now contacting cases identified as most likely to be have been underpaid according to our systems. Some of those cases will undoubtedly be the most complex ones.
The Department yesterday published an ad hoc statistical publication, setting out further detail on the progress we have made in processing cases, and revised estimates of the impacts of the exercise, including details on the number of claimants due arrears and the amounts likely to be paid. Yesterday, I also updated the frequently asked questions guide and deposited it in the Library, and I will continue to update the House.
I thank Mr Speaker for granting this urgent question.
Yesterday, it emerged that up to 180,000 ill and disabled people have been underpaid vital social security dating back to 2011. In July this year, the Government initially estimated that 70,000 ill and disabled people were underpaid, but it is now clear that more than double that amount were underpaid £5,000 on average, after having been wrongly migrated from incapacity benefit to contributions-based ESA, thereby denying them the additional social security support payments such as the severe disability premium. It has taken the Government six years to acknowledge these mistakes and seven years to find out how many disabled people have actually been affected. Some disabled people will wait 10 years to receive back payments.
The Department for Work and Pensions now estimates that it will pay up to £1 billion as a result of this shambolic error, so will the Minister tell us what mechanisms the Department has in place to ensure that the timeline for repayment is followed? Will she ensure that she will keep this House updated? Will her Department pay compensation to those who have been pushed into rent arrears, debt and destitution? What support will the Department provide to the estates of the ill and disabled people who have tragically passed away before receiving their back payment? How much of the Government’s total expenditure on social security is spent on underpayments, and what actions are the Government taking to put this right? Given the scale of the error made transferring people to ESA, how can the Government ensure that they will get it right when transferring up to 1 million disabled people on to universal credit? Perhaps the most important question is this: will the Minister apologise to the almost 200,000 disabled people and their families who have been denied vital social security support?
We first came to the House to talk about this issue last December, and we have regularly updated the House since. I myself have already apologised. Clearly, this was a dreadful administrative error in the Department and should not have happened. The permanent secretary has also apologised to the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office for the administrative mistakes.
It is important to recognise that, when people were transferring across from IB to ESA, a very paternalistic approach was taken, meaning the claimant was not involved in the transfer at all. All the funding they were receiving from the Department was transferred across, so nobody had anything taken away from them; rather, people missed the opportunity to receive additional support by way of an additional premium. We are now making sure, by reviewing these cases, that people get everything they are entitled to, because it is important that our benefits system benefits those who are entitled to it.
The hon. Lady raises important questions about what we have learned. We have learned a great deal from this exercise. As we have regularly told the House and Select Committees—the permanent secretary was before the Work and Pensions Select Committee only yesterday answering questions—the culture and mechanisms in the Department for spotting errors have been fundamentally reviewed. As we have discussed at length—this is a matter of public record—people in the Department and stakeholders came forward and pointed out some of the problems with the migration, but the Department responded in the belief that they were a series of one-off errors.
By 2014, it was recognised that some people were not being migrated accurately, and guidance was put in place. These were administrative errors that occurred in the Department, and officials took the appropriate action to the best of their ability. In fact, it was thanks to the good housekeeping of the DWP that the scale of the error was spotted. It was during the routine work undertaken on fraud and error that it was detected. At that point, Ministers were told, and they then undertook the administrative exercises that have led to the situation today.
As the Minister responsible now, I am looking towards the next huge migration of people—from ESA to universal credit—and the Secretary of State has made it absolutely clear that we will take an extremely careful test-and-learn approach and make sure that this time we involve the claimant in the migration. That is how we will avoid the situation reoccurring.
The Minister has rightly apologised, and I, too, apologise, because I was the responsible Minister during part of the migration. Mistakes happen in all Governments—they happened during the 13 years Labour was in government and before that when we were in government. The question is how we handle it. In a Department with a budget in excess of £250 billion a year, mistakes will be made, but will the Minister make sure, where compensation payments are required—because there will be people who have suffered—that we admit it and address it, rather than taking a partisan attitude, which I am sorry to say we have heard here today? Mistakes were made before, and mistakes have been made now. We have to address that today.
I appreciate what my right hon. Friend says. As I have made clear from the start, and as is completely supported by the Secretary of State, my focus is to fix the problem as soon as possible. We have put in considerable additional resource to make sure people get back payments as soon as possible. As far as possible, we are reaching out and getting the money to those who will most benefit from it.
I also want to reassure the House that the families of people who would have benefited from this additional payment and who tragically have died are being contacted. We are trying to find their families so that they can have that money.
Then there is the whole issue of whether people have missed out on passported benefits; I think that is the point that my right hon. Friend was raising. Each passported benefit is the responsibility of the Government Department concerned, and it would be very impractical for us to find out whether people accessed particular schemes. For example, the Department of Health, as we all know, has a low-income prescription scheme that some people might have accessed and some might not have done. We are going through the process of, wherever possible, making sure that people get the money that they should have as soon as possible. We have ongoing discussions with the other Departments that have passported benefits to make sure that people on low incomes get those benefits.
It is absolutely staggering that this error has happened on the DWP’s part. The fact that it was allowed to happen over so many years should be shocking, but actually it is not, because I and many of my colleagues see, week in, week out—every single week—the absolute ineptitude of the Department for Work and Pensions. I have a lot of respect for the Minister, but to suggest that this was somehow due to a housekeeping issue on the part of the DWP really is laughable, because it has been an absolutely unacceptable situation.
Will the DWP be undertaking investigations to find out what impact having less money has had on these people? How many of them were forced into poverty, and how many had to use food banks? How many suffered physically or emotionally as a result of this catastrophic error, and was their condition impacted? What investigations are the Department undertaking to ensure that similar errors have not been repeated? How is the Minister strengthening the Department’s internal mechanisms to ensure that these errors can be rectified more quickly in future?
The permanent secretary has been discussing with the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office the very substance of the hon. Gentleman’s question about strengthening procedures within the Department to make sure that this does not happen again. The National Audit Office made a series of recommendations to the Department about strengthening procedures within the Department which the permanent secretary has accepted and which are now in place. For example, if members of staff or stakeholders raise concerns about something going wrong or some unintended consequences with regard to the administration of benefits, they are referred to a committee in the Department and those matters are properly considered. We have much wider and deeper stakeholder engagement. It is particularly important now, as we move forward in designing the new benefit of universal credit, that stakeholders work with disabled people themselves—who are obviously experts on their own condition—and with us to shape those processes to make sure that we absolutely get them right. I am absolutely determined to make sure that that is the case.
I welcome the Minister’s apology and the comments she has made about system learning—that is extremely important. How long does she envisage it will take before everyone affected is repaid the money they are owed?
We are working as fast as we possibly can, and we confidently expect everyone to be paid by the end of next year. As I say, we prioritised the people who we think are most likely to have been affected by the underpayments so that they can have their money fastest. We have regularly updated the House. We released the statistics yesterday so that the House could be fully apprised of the situation, and I will continue to do that.
I apologise, Mr Deputy Speaker, for having to head off to the Select Committee meeting in a moment.
Will the Minister confirm how much of the £1 billion underpayment now being cited is due to payments made before October 2014, thanks to the Child Poverty Action Group’s successful court action, and thanks only to that? When Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs makes someone overpay tax going back years due to official error, they are paid interest and often compensation. Will the Minister confirm that these ESA recipients, who are often in a much worse position than taxpayers, will receive similar interest payments backdated to when their payments should have been made?
I thank the hon. Lady for that question. I know that she does fantastic work on the Work and Pensions Committee, and no doubt we will discuss this further at the Committee.
Let us be really clear about what happened. The advice that the Department got was that section 27 of the Social Security Act 1998 applied. That was why we felt we had to make the decision to back-pay to 2014. When additional information came forward from the National Audit Office and the Child Poverty Action Group about official error, the Secretary of State took the decision that, of course, we must do what the law says and go right back to the point of conversion. It was not in any way that the Government were trying not to do the right thing. We have proactively been utterly transparent and open with the House about this error, and we want to fix it as soon as possible.
The hon. Lady asked about the two phases. The first group of people that we are looking at date back to pre-2014 and the second group are from 2014. We have started to make payments to both groups of people, and so far we have paid out £420 million to the pre-2014 group.[Official Report, 22 October 2018, Vol. 648, c.2MC.]
We are talking about some of the most vulnerable people in society, who will be assisted by either carers or charities. Can my hon. Friend update the House on what assistance is being given to charities and carers? Is there a helpline or somewhere that people who may not be contacted by the Department can seek help and assistance?
My hon. Friend is a doughty champion for the most disadvantaged people in society, so I would expect no less a question from him. To reassure him, I visited the main centre in Oldham where we are contacting people who we feel may have been affected and then beginning to collect information, so that we can ensure that we pay them what they are owed. We are being very careful to ensure that we send letters, and in the letter there is information about a helpline that people can call.
We are very happy to speak to people’s carers. As my hon. Friend says, some people with severe disabilities may not be able to engage with us, and people with mental health conditions may be anxious and not want to engage with us. I was incredibly impressed by the care, compassion and professionalism of my colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions in Oldham who are undertaking this very important exercise.
The National Audit Office did not find the Department to be transparent when it was raising concerns about this; it found it to be defensive. Unfortunately, that has characterised the Department for a number of years around universal credit, as the NAO has pointed out in the past. With this much bigger transfer ahead, which the Minister mentioned, are there any proposals to change the culture of the Department and to be more open when problems of this kind are raised?
I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman’s question, and I deeply respect the work that he has done throughout his time in Parliament to stand up for the most vulnerable people in our society. I can reassure him that we are learning a lot of lessons from what happened when we migrated people from incapacity benefit to ESA. I think he was in the House when the Labour party created the work capability assessment and ESA. We have been working very hard to improve that benefit and to ensure that we learn lessons.
These problems arose because of the way that the migration was handled, and I am determined to ensure that when we go forward into UC, claimants are involved, to ensure that they are not missing out on any of the benefits to which they are entitled. We are working very closely with disabled people, people with health conditions, charities, citizens advice bureaux and disability rights organisations to ensure that we get that process absolutely right.
Can my hon. Friend confirm how those affected will be communicated with and how quickly? Is appropriate guidance and advice being cascaded to commonly used community advice services?
Once we scan the cases of those who have been underpaid to see who is most likely to benefit, we write to them and give them a telephone number so that we can work with them to complete their form as quickly as possible. We of course very much welcome the support that people get from carers and other professionals to do that. There is a telephone line, and we do work very carefully and considerately to make sure that people can work with us as easily as possible.
My constituent L has been without ESA since September 2017 and has been surviving on personal independence payments. After lodging an appeal with a sick note, he should have been put on the appeal payments rate, but he was not, despite the intervention of his support worker, until I intervened, which is not satisfactory. He is now receiving the appeal rate, but even if his appeal was successful today, he would be owed over £4,000—money he needs—and he still has no appeal date. I know the DWP staff are doing their best, but they have told my staff that L has slipped through the net. Is the system not supposed to be the net? Does the Minister think this is acceptable?
I clearly do not think that that case is acceptable at all. Clearly, there was a mistake there. I am pleased that the hon. Lady has been able to intervene and that the gentleman is now getting the benefit to which he is entitled. We are always working to improve our processes and our systems.
May I commend the Minister, who is a decent person? She is an excellent Minister, and she is doing a great job of dealing with an issue that predates her period as a Minister by an awful long time. She should be commended for the work she is doing in trying to put this matter right. That is in stark contrast, I might say, to the Labour party.
My hon. Friend the Minister will recall the scandal of tax credits, when half the people were paid incorrectly—some underpaid, some overpaid and millions paid the wrong amount—and those people are still, in many cases, owed those debts today. May I commend her for the work she is doing? She should not allow herself to be sidetracked by Labour Members, who sound all indignant when it suits them, but when they were in office and tax credits were introduced—I believe the right hon. Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms) was in government at the time—they made a complete Horlicks of it and never fully cleared up the mess they created.
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind words. It is an honour and a privilege to have this job, and I am absolutely determined that we will do everything we can to make sure that people get the back payments they rightly deserve. He makes a very good point about the absolute devastation that tax credits caused to so many people’s lives, and he is quite right to remind us of that. I want to point out that when people were transferred from IB to ESA, nobody had a loss of income. What we are talking about is money to which they might have been eligible at the time but did not get at the time, but everybody transferred across on the benefit they had.
I say to the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) that I am sorry, but two wrongs do not make a right, and his party has been in government for eight years—I repeat, eight years—now.
This involves hundreds of thousands of the most vulnerable people in our society, which I am afraid to say makes me angry and very sad. Given the time that has elapsed since this came to light, some if not many of the individuals who are known to be terminally ill will, sadly, have died. Their loved ones will have lost a loved and treasured family member in the knowledge that they had to endure increased hardship due to wrongly withheld benefits. What are Ministers doing to console those families and to compensate them for their loss?
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman that these are some of the most vulnerable people in society. That is why we have put in place everything that we can to reach out to them and make sure that they get the benefits they absolutely deserve to have, and where people, tragically, have passed away, that their families receive those benefits. I have apologised, the Secretary of State has apologised and the permanent secretary has apologised. This mistake should not have happened, and we are absolutely determined to sort it out as swiftly as we possibly can.
I am afraid that the Minister coming to the Chamber and praising the Department for good housekeeping is extremely ill-judged and inappropriate in such a serious situation. Of course, this is just the top of the hill. I have had vulnerable constituents waiting for up to a year, and receiving reduced payments or nothing at all. Before this scandal even came out, one of my constituents had to be paid £2,000 backdated, but only—like my colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol West (Thangam Debbonaire)—after my and my team’s intervention. Will the Minister tell us how many claims are allowed following an appeal, and how long is the current waiting time for those appeals?
The hon. Gentleman is now bringing up cases of people who applied for ESA more recently—I think that is what he is talking about—which is different from the people who were migrated across from incapacity benefit to ESA. Clearly, it is really important that we get the decision right first time for everyone. That is what we absolutely want to do: make sure that people applying for ESA are treated with respect and dignity, and get the right result.
I always look at the claimant experience, because behind every statistic is a real live person. The independent data shows that, when asked how they experienced the work capability assessment, over 90% of ESA claimants are satisfied. Obviously, some people, about 9% of people who apply for ESA, take their cases to appeal because they are not satisfied with the results. About 4% of those cases are upheld. Often, that is a case of more medical information being brought forward. I do not want there to be any appeals; I want to make sure we make the decisions right first time. That is why we put in place independent reviews and put in a huge amount of work to improve the work capability assessment and improve the benefit. [Interruption.] From a sedentary position, people are shouting out, “How long is the waiting time for appeals?” [Interruption.] I think the custom in the House is that Members rise to their feet to ask a question. [Interruption.]
Order. Lots of Members want to get in. We need short and accurate answers.
I want to come on to answer the question about the waiting time for appeals. That is the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice. I am working very carefully with the MOJ to reduce the amount of time people have to wait for appeals. It is coming down. In the last set of statistics I saw, it had come down by 9%. Over 200 judges have been recruited to the tribunal service, so we can see improvements—
Order. Can I just say that it is not fair to keep going? I am sure there will be a written question to which there will definitely be an answer.
Will the Minister confirm that the money will not come from existing budgets? Will she also make representations to the Chancellor to ensure the extra spending will not impact on additional spending urgently needed in other areas, such as universal credit?
I very much want to confirm that there is no impact on any of our existing benefits claimants. For anybody who is on benefits now, their money is not impacted by this whatsoever. We are absolutely making sure we have the right resources, both in staff and in paying out these benefits. It will not have an adverse effect on existing claimants.
Due to the serious nature of this issue, I am surprised that there has had to be an urgent question, not a ministerial statement. I am also disappointed that the Secretary of State is not here, because of the seriousness of the situation. Thirdly, I am very disappointed that the Minister is talking about action at pace, when it seems that it will be months and months and months ahead before this will be resolved. My question is this: what is the impact of disability premiums on tax credits? Will they also be repaid by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs?
Let us be clear: the Secretary of State came to the House last December and we have made a series of statements. Just yesterday, there was a written statement. We have put out information. The choice of urgent questions is a matter for Mr Speaker; it is not a matter for us. We have regularly updated the House with written ministerial statements. We had oral questions on Monday, so there was the opportunity for Opposition Members to raise these questions then. There was an opportunity again during yesterday’s debate. We are regularly in this House. We are absolutely accountable to Parliament and will continue to update the House regularly.
For the record, as stats were published yesterday, this could not have been raised on Monday. The Secretary of State advised that the disabled would be better off under universal credit. Where can those calculations be found? Other statistics have shown that the disabled will be worse off—this affects 750,000 people. Furthermore, constituents have written to me regarding work capability assessments and feel that leading questions have been asked and wrong decisions made on claims. However, the Minister said that on ESA, the Government have tightened what they are doing now, things have been looked into and they are trying to make it more streamlined and more consistent. On the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for East Ham (Stephen Timms), I would like to know what safeguards are in place to ensure that vulnerable people are protected and assessments are fair.
The work capability assessment was at the heart of the hon. Lady’s question, and it has been the subject of consultations and huge amounts of stakeholder engagement. We are absolutely determined to continuously improve the work capability assessment. Healthcare professionals who undertake the assessments are all medically qualified and they are all trained. We have a huge amount of stakeholder engagement working with us constantly to improve the work capability assessment and in fact, the whole claimant journey through ESA.
I call Melanie Onn.
Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker; that was unexpected—I thought I was in trouble.
I have to say, I am a little disappointed with the Minister. This is such a sensitive and incredibly important issue; a little more contrition at the Dispatch Box really would not have gone amiss. I am pleased, however, about the Department’s acceptance that where there are errors on its part, back-payments will be made. In that spirit—of accepting the principle of back-payments when errors are made—may I ask whether this will require primary legislation? I asked about kinship carers and back-payments when erroneous decisions had been made by the Department, and I was told that primary legislation would be required to make those back-payments. Is the same true for these ESA back-payments?
I reassure the hon. Lady, if she has any doubt in her mind, that we take this matter extremely seriously. We want to make sure that everybody who is underpaid gets their payment as soon as possible. We absolutely have to get this right. We talked about how vulnerable some people are and the complexity. It is really important that we get this right. There is a lot of legislation around official error and the laws that apply to underpayments and how they should be repaid.
The hon. Lady has raised a specific case that I am not familiar with, so the best thing to do is for me to write to her on that specific case, because I do not want to mislead the House in any way.
A constituent of mine, a young woman with fibromyalgia, had her ESA stopped and was told by the DWP to move over on to universal credit while waiting for a mandatory reconsideration. My understanding is that if she had done so, she would not be able to move back on to ESA even if the mandatory reconsideration was successful. How are people being tracked through this labyrinthine system and how certain is the Minister that everybody will get back-payments who is entitled to them, particularly if they have moved from one benefit to another over this period?
It is always very difficult to comment without the full details of the specific case. As the hon. Lady knows, I am always happy to meet Members of the House and go through particular cases. If I may talk in general terms, ESA within UC is the same: people apply, they have a work capability assessment and they are assessed. I reassure her that the process is the same and that if the Department makes mistakes, we do back-pay, as we have heard today. But let us meet on that specific case, so that I can give her the best possible advice for her constituent.
The Minister’s apology is welcome, but it brings little comfort, as she will appreciate, to anyone who has been affected. At least she is acknowledging that things could be resolved.
There has been much talk today across the House about whether this is our fault or the Government’s fault, and everything else. I make the point to the Minister that in September last year a UN report on the Government’s policies on disabled people by the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities said that those policies were creating a “human catastrophe” for disabled people. That is something that has never been put to a Labour Government. Does she not understand that this massive underpayment of ESA is only reinforcing the fact that the Government are destroying disabled people’s lives?
I utterly reject the suggestion that we are destroying the lives of disabled people. We did not agree with the United Nations at the time, because we did not think that it had taken into consideration all the evidence that we had given to it. I published a full response to the UN, which I hope very much that the hon. Gentleman will read. It is in the Library, and it shows the huge amount of support that we are giving to disabled people.
Benefits for disabled people in our country have never been higher, but we are not at all complacent. We know that there is more to do. I want all disabled people in our country to be able to live their lives independently and play their full part in society, and we will continue to ensure that that is the case.
A constituent who rang my office this morning was concerned that if they received the money that was underpaid, it might then be clawed back from other benefits. Will the Minister confirm that that will not happen?
That is a very good question, and I can assure the hon. Lady’s constituent that it will not happen. The full details are in the “frequently asked questions” section in the Library.
Business of the House
Will the Leader of the House please give us the forthcoming business?
The business for next week will include the following:
Monday 22 October—Remaining stages of the Offensive Weapons Bill.
Tuesday 23 October—Remaining stages of the Civil Liability Bill [Lords].
Wednesday 24 October—Consideration of a Business of the House motion, followed by all stages of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill.
Thursday 25 October—General debate on folic acid fortification, followed by a general debate on the inclusive transport strategy.
Friday 26 October—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 29 October will include the following:
Monday 29 October—My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will deliver his Budget statement.
Tuesday 30 October—Continuation of the Budget debate.
Wednesday 31 October—Continuation of the Budget debate.
Thursday 1 November—Conclusion of the Budget debate.
Friday 2 November—The House will not be sitting.
Colleagues will also wish to know that, subject to the progress of business, the House will rise at the close of business on Thursday 14 February and return on Monday 25 February.
Today the restoration and renewal Bill will be published in draft, and I think the House should be proud that progress is at last being made on proposals that will safeguard Parliament for generations to come. Today is also World Menopause Day. Greater awareness of the impact on millions of women is important if we are to ensure that women at all ages and stages can lead fulfilling and productive lives.
Finally, I am sure that the whole House will want to congratulate you, Sir Lindsay, on your visit to Buckingham Place yesterday to receive your knighthood.
Congratulations from our side of the House too, Mr Deputy Speaker.
I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business. Let me start by paying tribute to Patricia Hollis, who has sadly died. She made an incredible contribution to public life. I know that she will be missed by the Labour party, but I also know that the whole country is at a loss without her amazing talents.
I am pleased to learn that the Offensive Weapons Bill will be back on Monday, but I think that it would have been helpful if the Government had informed the Opposition in time. There were three statements last Monday, and two points of order on the change of business. There were also three hours remaining, during which we could have debated the Bill, but the House rose early, at 7 pm. Will the Leader of the House ensure that all parties are told of any change of business as soon as possible?
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the February recess dates. It is half-term for many parents. May I try again, and ask her to discuss the Easter recess dates with her colleagues?
The Leader of the House said that on Wednesday the House would debate the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill. Will she join me in welcoming members of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, which will hold its 57th plenary session this weekend? They will come to Parliament next Tuesday, and will meet Mr Speaker—and hopefully you as well, Mr Deputy Speaker. Both the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol South (Karin Smyth) have worked hard to promote co-operation between the UK and Irish Parliaments, which will be very important in the forthcoming months.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) is the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on human trafficking and modern slavery, and wanted to remind us that today is Anti-slavery Day. The Walk Free Foundation estimates that there are 136,000 victims of modern slavery in the UK; in 2014 there were 13,000. The charity Anti-Slavery International estimates that there are 2,118 children identified as potential victims of child trafficking in the UK, a 66% increase on the year before. But the charity has said that the UK Government do not have a coherent plan for preventing child trafficking. May we have a statement on what the Government are doing to tackle modern slavery in the UK?
It is Black History Month and tomorrow is wear red day, a campaign by Show Racism the Red Card. I and many other hon. Members signed a petition for the removal of a sociology textbook approved by the exam board AQA, which is presumably also approved by the Department for Education, which perpetuated an untrue racial stereotype about African-Caribbean men. The book has now been withdrawn.
Why does it take a petition or legal action by the Child Poverty Action Group about employment and support allowance underpayments for vulnerable people to get the money to which they are entitled? Now, after pressure, universal credit has also been delayed. We needed the reassurances that the Leader of the House gave last week that we can debate regulations on the Floor of the House in the usual way, but I want more than that from her—I want to be told that we are going to debate the managed migration to UC, whenever that happens, on the Floor of the House and have a vote.
The Government clearly cannot manage their Departments, nor, it seems, can they be fiscally credible unless they are taking money from the vulnerable. We have seen that in Tory-controlled Northampton. The shadow Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government has asked about this: can the Leader of the House say what NEA Properties, a company owned by cash-strapped Northamptonshire County Council, spent £1.5 million on? Nobody knows what that is about. It is said it was spent on unspecified “projects”; there were no external checks.
Turning to the European Union, can the Leader of the House update the House on whether the Government are on top of the 800 statutory instruments that need to be laid before Parliament before the UK exits the EU? The Journal Office has said that only 33 negative SIs relating to the UK’s exit from the EU have been laid and only 46 proposed SIs are currently going through the European Statutory Instruments Committee. Last week a Delegated Legislation Committee sadly took one hour to discuss one SI, and the Minister present did not even have the necessary information about the impact of the SI, nor whether the Government had conducted an equalities assessment. Can the Leader of the House give us a timetable for when the EU SIs will be laid and the affirmative ones debated?
Is Parliament sovereign? Last night we learned that the Prime Minister cannot win in a straight vote without fixing the rules. The Government have fought at every stage to avoid a vote on a final meaningful deal. Our clever shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union added those words for a reason—“a meaningful vote”, he said, not a meaningless vote. Has anyone checked with “Dicey on the Constitution”? Can the Leader of the House confirm that the Government are not using the Procedure Committee to take sovereignty away from Parliament by not giving Parliament a meaningful vote on the final deal? This is not a minority dictatorship; this is a parliamentary democracy, and Parliament is sovereign. This is the most outrageous power grab by the Government that has ever been seen. Will the Leader of the House make a statement to the House on the constitutional position of not allowing an amendable motion, and will she do her constitutional duty of being the House’s representative in Cabinet?
Staying with the EU, there is good news: we congratulate England on beating Spain, in Spain, for the first time in 38 years. Who says you can’t win with kids? And it seems that the full English special is back on the menu, and in Climate Change Week, the “fracking three” are free. We have had “Girl with Balloon” shredded, and now it seems that Banksy’s latest is “Woman with Chequers Plan shredded.”
I should like to start by agreeing with the hon. Lady about Baroness Hollis, who has passed away—she will be much missed. The House owes her a great debt of gratitude for her campaigning on behalf of the poor and vulnerable in our society.
The hon. Lady asked about Monday’s business on the Offensive Weapons Bill. As was explained at the time, a group of important amendments was tabled, but a knife had already been agreed for 7 pm, which would have allowed less than half an hour to debate those amendments. It was felt better to reschedule the debate and, as she will have noticed, I have indeed rescheduled it for next week.
The hon. Lady mentioned the Easter recess. I am pleased to hear that she is happy about the February recess, but I am not surprised to hear that she has something else to complain about. That is par for the course for her, I am sorry to say.
I completely echo the hon. Lady’s welcome for the members of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. We look forward to hearing what they have to say, and we all celebrate the co-operation between the British and Irish groups.
The hon. Lady highlighted the importance of Anti-slavery Day, and she is absolutely right to say that it is an opportunity to raise awareness of the scale of modern slavery in the United Kingdom and abroad. There are an estimated 40 million victims worldwide, which shows that these crimes are far from having been consigned to the history books. As she will know, the Government have made tackling modern slavery a top domestic and foreign policy priority, including by introducing the first Modern Slavery Act in 2015, which was introduced by the Prime Minister when she was Home Secretary. This is an important priority for the Government.
The hon. Lady mentioned Black History Month. She might be delighted, as I was, to read in the press that more is being done to ensure that more of the history of black races in the world is being brought into our history books. That is incredibly important, as the history books have been far too white-focused, and it will be interesting to see how that imbalance is addressed.
The hon. Lady asked about debating statutory instruments on the Floor of the House. She knows that it is a matter of parliamentary convention that when the Opposition make a reasonable request for a debate on an SI on the Floor of the House, time is allowed for such a debate. I think the Government have demonstrated in this Session that we have been willing to provide such time. In fact, we have agreed to more such requests from the Opposition than at any time since 1997.
The hon. Lady mentioned Northamptonshire County Council. She will be aware that that is my own local county council, and this is an issue that I am incredibly concerned about. The Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government has brought in commissioners to deal with the specific issues of Northamptonshire County Council, and the local councillors are making proposals on how to ensure that my constituents and all other Northamptonshire residents get the best value for money as well as good services.
The hon. Lady asked specifically about the statutory instruments relating to the Brexit process. I had a very good informal meeting with the sifting Committee yesterday, and I was able to assure its members that we will be giving them as much information as possible on the flow of statutory instruments relating to Brexit, and that, having changed the process for monitoring the flow and quality of SIs, I am confident that this will be manageable, that it is in line with other parliamentary Sessions, and that all those SIs will be brought forward in good time for exit day.
Finally, the hon. Lady asked about the meaningful vote. The letter that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union wrote to the Procedure Committee on 10 October was in response to a letter from the Committee to the Prime Minister asking for views on the meaningful vote. The House will be aware that the question of whether such debates should be organised through a business of the House motion, and the form of any such motion, will be in the hands of the House itself, which has the power to amend, approve or reject such a motion. It is also important to recognise the need for the House to consider the question that will in reality be before the United Kingdom, which is whether or not to accept the deal that the Government have negotiated with the European Union. I encourage all hon. Members to look at the incoming letter from the Procedure Committee dated 17 September and the response from the Secretary of State, as well as, importantly, the appendix that sets out the legal position.
The news of Wednesday’s business is most welcome, but will the Leader of the House say why it is necessary to conclude all stages of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill in one day? The matter to which it relates now dates from January 2017, and it is vital to get things right.
My hon. Friend will be aware that the Bill will address certain pressing matters, so a swift process has been considered necessary, but there will be an opportunity to debate that next Wednesday.
I call Pete Wishart.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. We welcome your knighthood and heartily congratulate you on surviving the sword to the shoulders without any mishap.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for next week. She has certainly been busy this week, has she not? It was she who hosted the pizza putsch—the Cabinet’s calzone coup—where the Brexit mutineers ensured over garlic bread that whatever the Prime Minister cobbles together will be wood-fired. Amid all this Margherita madness, nothing changes, and this whole disastrous Brexit is approaching its depressing end game. There are no good toppings left—just the anchovies and the pineapple. Whether Brexit is crispy or deep pan, it is already unpalatable to the EU, to this House, and most definitely to the pizza-munching Cabinet mutineers.
The Leader of the House clarified a couple of things about the meaningful vote. We are grateful that the motion will be amendable, but there must be no suggestion that there will be a binary choice between a disastrous Brexit and the horrors of no deal. This was all about taking back control and the sovereignty of this House, so it must be up to the House to determine the biggest decision that it has made for a few decades. We must be reassured here and today that there will not be a binary choice.
Finally, who once said:
“I don’t think the UK should leave the EU. It would be a disaster for our economy”?
Was it Michel Barnier, Pete Wishart, or Andrea Leadsom? May we have a debate on cognitive memory recall, and perhaps ask the Leader of the House to lead for us on that one?
I love the hon. Gentleman’s interventions. I must say that I am really grateful to the many right hon. and hon. Members and members of the press who have been so determined to find out exactly what went on in the Leader of the House’s office on Monday night, and I think I can fully reassure all colleagues on three very important points: first, we went for a thin and crispy base; secondly, there were absolutely no cheesy bites; and, thirdly, I made sure that there were fresh carrot sticks for all my guests. I hope that I have now cleared that up.
The hon. Gentleman asks about the meaningful vote—he is right to do so. On the one hand, anything other than a straightforward approval of the deal will bring huge uncertainty for businesses, consumers and citizens but, on the other hand, any motion of the House is a matter for the House to decide. As we have noted on many occasions, the Speaker will decide whether to accept amendments in the usual way.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked about my comments, which I did anticipate, because he tweeted that he was going to ask me—[Interruption.] Yes, it was helpful. I want to address the matter seriously, because a lot of people are concerned. When I was a Back Bencher, I established with Conservative colleagues something called the Fresh Start Project, which was about seeking fundamental reform of the European Union, and it could be said that we really took our duties seriously. We travelled the EU and met like-minded politicians from both sides of the political spectrum. We really did our homework, and proposed a profound, fundamental set of reforms right across all areas of the EU, with a genuine desire to see a reformed EU that the UK would remain in. As someone who grew up as a member of the EU, as an awful lot of people in this country did, it seemed that reform was the No. 1 priority.
It became apparent during the discussions between the previous Prime Minister and the EU, however, that reform is simply not on the table. That was very clear, and that was when my opinion changed. The European Union cannot expect to trap countries into its ambitions, which is why I am a very proud Brexiteer and very keen to promote the superb future that the UK will have once we leave the European Union next March.
There was misreporting about our Procedure Committee yesterday. We wrote to the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, and on no occasion did he ask us to change the rules. The situation, as outlined by the Clerks, is very clear: if there is no deal, the Government must lay a motion in neutral terms under section 13(4) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. Such a motion is unamendable, and attempts to politicise the office of the Speaker are completely outwith our rules and procedures. If there is a deal, there will be a vote under section 13(1) on an amendable motion, but if the Government are defeated in that vote, it defeats the deal.
In either case, Brexit proceeds under our procedure. It is now unstoppable and nobody in Parliament—[Interruption.] No, under the existing Act, nobody in Parliament can stop it, except the Government. Will the Government give me a categorical assurance that, whether or not there is a deal, or whether a deal is defeated, Brexit proceeds at the end of March and the Government will not delay it by a single day?
The United Kingdom will be leaving the European Union on 29 March 2019. To clarify again: once a deal with the EU has been agreed, Parliament will have a vote on the withdrawal agreement and the terms of our future partnership. Parliament will have the choice to accept or reject that deal. If Parliament accepts the deal, we will introduce an EU withdrawal agreement Bill to implement the agreement in domestic legislation; if Parliament chooses to reject the deal, the Government will be unable to ratify the agreement.
I am surprised by the revelation that the Leader of the House provides carrot sticks to her guests—carrot and stick all in one handy bite.
I am also a little surprised that the Leader of the House did not announce the provisional business for the short week commencing 5 November, which will be the last opportunity to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the great war before 11 November 2018. I had hoped for some clarity on that.
I welcome the fact that the first debate on Thursday 25 October will be on folic acid fortification, which was the subject of a Backbench Business Committee application by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) to commemorate Spina Bifida and Hydrocephalus Awareness Week. I hope that the Chair will look favourably on him and call him early in the debate.
I have been thinking about this for a long time, and I do not like to abuse my position as Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, but may we have a debate in Government time on local government finance? The Government have, over the past eight years, incrementally withdrawn the revenue support grant from local authorities, and they continue to do so, but they have done nothing to rectify the other side of the equation, which is council tax, the council tax base and how council tax is raised. The situation is having a much more detrimental impact in some councils than others. We need to air that in a debate so we can see how to get a real solution, which will benefit councils that have experienced the greatest losses.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for lobbying for a debate to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day. I have had representations from many hon. Members and I seek to find time for such a debate. I will make an announcement on that next week.
The hon. Gentleman asks for a debate in Government time on local government finance, and he might find time to raise that issue during the Budget debates.
May I also congratulate you, Mr Deputy Speaker, on your richly deserved great honour? Tomorrow is breast cancer care day, and we will all be wearing something pink. Some of us look nicer in pink than others, but it is an important day as we highlight breast cancer, which is still a killer for so many of our constituents.
May I declare an interest and request a debate on the persecution of veterans who served in Northern Ireland, as I did through the ’70s and ’80s and in Operation Banner? It is fundamentally wrong that our ex-servicemen are being treated like terrorists. It is scaring them to death to be dragged into a judicial process that was resolved years and years ago. They have been forgotten, I am afraid, by Governments of parties on both sides of the House. They did not ask to go to Northern Ireland; they were sent. There were sent to do a job to keep the peace, and it is fundamentally wrong that they are being prosecuted today.
I am extremely sympathetic to my right hon. Friend’s comments. Without any doubt, we owe a vast debt of gratitude to the heroism and bravery of all our soldiers and police officers who upheld the rule of law and were themselves accountable to it. He will appreciate that the current system in Northern Ireland is not working well for soldiers, police officers or victims. I encourage him to raise his question directly with Ministers during Defence questions on Monday 22 October or Northern Ireland questions on Wednesday 31 October.
Yesterday the chair of the inquiry into infected blood, Sir Brian Langstaff, published a letter to the Cabinet Office in which he calls for decisive action on the financial support available to those infected and those affected. The inquiry is likely to take several years to reach its conclusions, but people do not have financial security at the moment and there is different support in the different nations of the United Kingdom. I wonder whether we might have a statement from the Cabinet Office in response to Sir Brian’s letter.
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady, who has been tireless in looking into this issue and raising it in this place. Some of my constituents have suffered due to this appalling contaminated blood problem, and she is absolutely right to raise it. If she wants to write to me, I can take up the matter directly with the Cabinet Office on her behalf.
David Thompson started wearing women’s clothes and a wig and changed his name to Karen White so that he could be moved to a female prison. Unbelievably he was, from where he sexually abused four female prisoners. His conviction was confirmed in the courts last week. Please may we have a debate on how we can stop this madness, which created four unnecessary female victims of crime? If it is not stopped, we will create further unnecessary victims of crime. This is putting women at risk, so please may we have a debate to find out how we can stop it from ever happening again?
My hon. Friend raises an incredibly important issue. The subject of the abuse of legal gender recognition processes has been raised a number of times in several different ways. The Government want to make the legal gender recognition process less intrusive and bureaucratic for transgender people, but at the same time to ensure that we protect women from abuse. As I understand it, the consultation is ongoing until tomorrow and I encourage my hon. Friend to feed his concerns into that.
On 1 November, importantly, cannabis-based medicines will be able to be prescribed without licence, but some patients, including Bailey Williams, a young boy from my constituency whose mother is Rachel Rankmore, have consultants who appear to be unwilling under any circumstances to prescribe cannabis-based medicines. May we have a statement from the Health Secretary about whether we can make available to these patients NHS facilities and consultants who would be willing to consider prescribing such medicines in order to relieve terrible suffering and save lives?
I am very sympathetic to what the hon. Gentleman says. As he will know, the Home Secretary acted very quickly to ensure that cannabis for medicinal purposes could be made available very quickly and he has taken steps to do that. However, I encourage the hon. Gentleman to raise any specific concerns he has about NHS professionals who may be unwilling to prescribe directly at Health and Social Care questions next Tuesday.
Lincolnshire’s excellent police and crime commissioner, Marc Jones, has alerted me to an organised, ruthless and serious network of foreign criminals who have established the illegal supply of tobacco and alcohol on an industrial scale. These illegal cigarettes have already led to fires and fatalities in my constituency. Will the Leader of the House ask a Treasury Minister to come here, so that we can ensure that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is looking at the way these things are supplied—shops exist solely for the purposes of money laundering—and a Home Office Minister to come here, so that we can make sure that, post Brexit, with the end of free movement, these people are deported posthaste?
My right hon. Friend is raising a very serious issue—the rise in organised crime—which I know will be of concern to many hon. Members. He will be aware that the Government have invested significantly in new cyber techniques in order to be able to catch, trap and round up these organised crime gangs. He is right to raise this point and I encourage him to raise it directly with Home Office Ministers on Monday week, 29 October.
In response to the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), the Leader of the House gave us the menu for the pizza meeting last Monday night, but she did not say whether she had any champagne. Now to get serious, Orbit, a housing association, has houses in my constituency, but when I correspond with it, it uses the Data Protection Act to deny me answers on behalf of my constituents. What are we going to do about that? May we have a debate, some sort of statement or an amendment to the legislation, because this really is not good enough, as it is distancing Members from their constituents?
The hon. Gentleman is raising an important point about the responses that MPs, who are there to represent and support their constituents, receive from social housing and other public sector organisations, which might, on occasion, be seen to hide behind data protection rules. He is right to raise the matter. There should not be any limits for Members of Parliament who are legitimately representing the interests of their constituents, and I suggest he raises the issue at Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport questions, which will take place on Thursday 1 November.
Genomics England, a company wholly owned by the NHS, is carrying out its 100,000 genomes project, the largest of its kind in the world. It is sequencing the genomes of NHS patients with rare diseases and cancer. It is a nationwide project, but my local trust, Harrogate and District NHS Foundation Trust, is participating in it. The project is designed to develop a new genomics service for the NHS and boost medical research. Please may we have a statement from a Health and Social Care Minister on this excellent project and how it will contribute to transforming the care that patients will receive?
My hon. Friend is raising an incredibly important development in the world of genomics and big data and how we can transform healthcare. This is a very exciting time and I encourage him to seek a Westminster Hall debate, because it is important that all right hon. and hon. Members get the chance not only to feed in their views, but to be informed about some of the amazing advances that are coming down the track.
I call Ian Murray.
Thank you very much, Sir Deputy Speaker. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.] It is always good to crawl. The Leader of the House said to the shadow Leader of the House that the EU withdrawal Bill could be amended, rejected or accepted, but in the answer to the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), when she read her notes, she omitted the word “amended”. So may we have a meaningful debate on the meaning of the word “meaningful”? Will she confirm that the Government’s EU withdrawal deal will be amendable?
I say again that the House will be well aware of the fact that whether or not debate ought to be organised through a business of the House motion, and the form of any such motion, is ultimately in the hands of the House itself. The House has the power to amend, approve or reject such a motion, but it is also very important to recognise the need for the House to consider the question that is before the United Kingdom, which is whether or not to accept the deal that the Government have negotiated with the EU. Anything other than a straightforward approval of the deal would lead to great uncertainty for businesses and citizens, because any changes might mean that the Government are not in a position to ratify the deal.
A constituent of mine was mis-sold an interest-rate hedge by Barclays bank. He was eventually paid back the money that he had paid and offered compensation of £37.50. He was then forced to sell his properties at well below their market value, despite my asking for a bit of time so that they could be sold at a reasonable price. I have written to Barclays twice to ask it to look again at the case because of the situation that they put my constituents in, but the bank has not replied to my letters. May we have a debate on banks and other institutions that simply do not respect MPs who are trying to do something on behalf of their constituents?
My hon. Friend raises such an important point. As a member of the Treasury Committee and then as the City Minister, I was absolutely disgusted to see some of the really harrowing stories about businesspeople who lost their livelihoods and years and years of work because of the mis-selling of all sorts of interest-rate products, including interest-rate swaps. It really was disgraceful behaviour. My hon. Friend will be aware that the Financial Conduct Authority has looked into this issue and there have been several reviews, but I absolutely agree with him that it is not acceptable for a bank simply not to reply to his request for further investigation. The Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee, the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), was looking interestedly at my hon. Friend when he asked his question, so I gently suggest that it would be a good subject for a lengthy Back-Bench debate. I am very happy to provide the time for that and would very much like to take part in such a debate myself.
Will the Leader of the House allocate Government time for a debate on the future of the post office network? We have seen accelerated bank closures, and ATMs are disappearing in towns and villages throughout the country. The Government, and the coalition Government before it, boasted about the resource that they put into the network, but that resource has been used to close it down. We need a vision and a Government who allocate the time to direct that vision.
I hope I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that the overall number of post offices is not reducing. On 11 October, the Post Office announced that 40 post offices—[Interruption.] Do hon. Members want to hear the answer? Perhaps they just like to shout me down. I am trying to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question. The overall number of post offices is not reducing. On 11 October, the Post Office announced plans to relocate 40 post offices into WHSmith stores in 2019, and WHSmith will also move to a franchise arrangement for 33 post offices that are already sited in its stores, taking the total number of post offices operated by WHSmith in its stores to more than 200.
A separate issue is when sub-postmasters decide to retire and there is a problem with finding somebody to take over the post office, but I reassure the hon. Gentleman that the change and the relocations into WHSmith stores are intended to maintain a good service for all our constituents, who often find that the opening hours of their village post office are better than those of a high street bank, and that is of benefit to them.
Stirling is an epicentre of volunteering. I am proud to tell the House that Stirling is the sole UK city candidate to be Europe’s capital of volunteering in 2020. Will the Leader of the House join me in paying tribute to the volunteers in Stirling and up and down the United Kingdom who give so freely of their time, talent and means to serve in our communities? Will she support Stirling’s candidacy? May we have a debate to celebrate the massive contribution that volunteers make to the life of our country?
My hon. Friend raises an excellent point. I would love to join him in paying tribute to the fantastic volunteers in Stirling and right up and down the country. The Government do recognise the huge importance of volunteering and we continue to support and encourage it. We have recently published our civil society strategy, which sets out our aim to enable everyone to provide their own voluntary contributions throughout their lives. I wish Stirling great success with its candidacy for Europe’s capital of volunteering in 2020.
As we speak, Possibilities for Each and Every Kid in Glasgow is about to celebrate its 18th birthday. This year, it was awarded the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service for its work encouraging young people into volunteering, outdoor play and creative arts. It has also done lots of work in schools, transforming breakfast clubs in schools such as Dalmarnock Primary. May we have a debate on the contribution of organisations such as PEEK to young people’s health and wellbeing?
I am delighted to join the hon. Lady in congratulating that organisation on its excellent work and wishing it the best on its 18th birthday. She is right, as is my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr), to raise the important work that volunteers do right up and down the country. I share her pleasure in celebrating its success and encourage Members to seek opportunities, perhaps through a Westminster Hall debate, so that we can all share in some of the local successes in our constituencies.
On Monday, I met representatives from the National Federation of Retail Newsagents and they echoed the concerns of shopkeepers in my Cleethorpes constituency that retail crime is not being prioritised by some police forces. They also expressed concern that, with the growing demands on the police, perhaps from the further extension of hate crime legislation, retail crime might slip even further down the list of priorities. Will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate on retail crime and on how the police will respond to it?
My hon. Friend is right that our high streets need as much support as possible and that includes protecting them from crime. All incidents should be reported to the police to enable them to gather the intelligence necessary to be able to deal with these criminals. Often, the police are concerned that these crimes go unreported, so I encourage all those experiencing retail trade crime to report it. I can tell him that we are working hard with industry and the police, through the national retail crime steering group, to make sure that retailers have the tools that they need to prevent and manage particularly violent incidents and to allow the police to target their resources appropriately.
The Home Affairs Committee has rightly criticised the Home Office for its data handling and for losing people’s immigration documents. Can we have a chance to scrutinise Ministers on this? I say that on behalf of a constituent who now has to replace two passports, four birth certificates, three DNA tests and a marriage certificate.
I am very sympathetic to the hon. Lady’s point. It is unacceptable when documents get lost in that way. I encourage her to take up her constituent’s issues at Home Office questions, which are on Monday 29 October.
Today is the last day of Navaratri and those of us who have been dancing the Garba and Dandiya raas feel healthier and fitter as a result. I say to colleagues not to despair because Sharad Purnima and Diwali are coming up, so there is still more chance for greater fitness. Will my right hon. Friend join me in wishing Hindus, Sikhs and Jains happy Navami as we celebrate the triumph of light over darkness and good over evil? Can we have a debate in Government time on how we can use the benefits of dance to overcome childhood obesity?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. I join him in wishing his constituents and others around the country happy Navami. With my own pizza-eating habits, I shall certainly be needing to take advantage of any dancing opportunities that I find.
Last week, I asked the Leader of the House when we would have a debate on the public health model that the Home Office announced we would be adopting to reduce youth violence. She helpfully said that she would consult with Home Office colleagues. Will she update the House on how those discussions went and when we are likely to have this extremely important debate?
I have taken up this issue with Home Office colleagues. I believe that I asked the hon. Lady to write to me if she had a specific question that she wanted me to raise with them. It is Home Office questions on 29 October, so I encourage her to raise the issue directly with the Department then.
Can we have Government statement about payday lending and the role of the Financial Conduct Authority? A recent BBC piece told the story of Danny Cheetham, whose initial £100 loan spiralled to a debt of £19,000. Many constituents have written to me with concerns about this issue, so please can we have a statement from the Economic Secretary to the Treasury about the role of the FCA, which appears to be asleep at the wheel?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that a cap was put on payday lending interest rates, although I would sympathise with him if he were to say that it is still too high; this is a genuine problem. The Government has done as much as possible to facilitate new entrants to the lending market. The Budget debate will be a good opportunity to raise this matter directly with Ministers, and I encourage the hon. Gentleman to do so.
Many constituents have raised with me in recent days their dismay at the amount of tax being paid by online giants, with reports suggesting that Facebook will only be paying £7.4 million in tax. My constituents and the constituents of the Leader of the House all pay their tax, so can we have an urgent debate to ensure that these online giants start paying their taxes? Will she also press the Chancellor to ensure that he addresses this matter in the Budget in 10 days’ time?
All hon. Members will be very sympathetic to the hon. Gentleman’s point. We all agree that it is only fair that online businesses pay their fair share of taxes. The Chancellor has already made some warm noises towards addressing this issue, and I will remind him that the hon. Gentleman has raised it today.
Can we have a debate in Government time on the application of section 21 of the Housing Act 1988, because it is being used in a cavalier and callous fashion? There is a cowboy company operating in Derby known as Enabling Homes, but it is actually enabling homelessness. Last week, it completed a purchase on a block of flats in Mackworth in my constituency, and the very next day it issued section 21 notices to the tenants, evicting them in two months’ time—just in time for Christmas. This is a scandal, so can we please have a debate?
I am very concerned to hear the hon. Gentleman’s story. I agree that he should look into this matter very carefully, and I am sure that he will do so. Perhaps he will apply for an Adjournment debate on that specific issue, but I also encourage him to take it up directly with Ministers at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government to ensure that there is not some fundamental problem that needs to be addressed.
The Civil Nuclear Constabulary is a specialist armed police force dedicated to protecting civil nuclear sites across the UK, such as Hunterston in my constituency. The Civil Nuclear Constabulary will
“deter any attacker whose intent is the theft or sabotage of nuclear material whether static or in transit”,
potentially risking their own lives for our safety. Can we have a statement on the great concern caused by the fact that raising the retirement age of these officers to 67 and 68 will render their service “unsustainable”, according to the chief constable of the constabulary?
I join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to the Civil Nuclear Constabulary. Having been an energy Minister myself, I have met some officers so I know that they take high risks and have to be very carefully trained. It is important that we recognise the fact that people are living longer and that public sector workers are all working for longer periods. Some of these officers are redeployed into other areas as they reach the end of their working lives, but the hon. Lady may well wish to raise the matter directly with Ministers at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. If she wants to write to me, I can take it up with them on her behalf.
There are fresh reports in the press today about contamination of Pret a Manger products—in this case, seafood, which can be a serious allergen in vegetarian flatbread. These serious breaches of safety have killed people, including my constituent Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, but nothing is happening in Government. We have been told there is a review, but can we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about what is being reviewed, the terms of reference and when it will report, before more people die?
First, may I say how sorry everybody was to hear of the death of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent. It was a terribly tragic event, and we send our deepest sympathies to her family. He is right to raise the importance of the accuracy of food labelling. I believe a statement was made at the time, and we have just had DEFRA questions, at which I hope he was able to raise this directly with Ministers. If he wants to write to me, I can take it up with them on his behalf.
Every year in the UK, about 1,300 blood cancer patients need a stem cell transplant from an unrelated donor in order to save their lives. It is possible to join the stem cell donor register at 16, but I am concerned to learn from the charity Anthony Nolan that young people often do not know about the register or hold misconceptions about stem cell donation. May we have a debate about adding stem cell donation, alongside organ and blood donation, to the statutory guidance on health education for secondary school pupils?
The hon. Lady makes an excellent suggestion, and one that I personally would support. I was delighted recently when in my own constituency we achieved one of the largest groups of donors in the country. She is absolutely right, however, that we need to do more to make people aware of what donation means physically and what it could mean for those they help. I would certainly support that, and I encourage her to take it up at Health questions next week.
Can we have an urgent statement on the assistance the Government can offer to those communities devastated by Storm Callum at the weekend and the possibility of drawing down support from the EU solidarity fund? Towns and villages in the south of Ceredigion and in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) were particularly impacted by unprecedented levels of flooding, and assistance with the clean-up and the reconstruction costs is urgently needed.
I am aware that the hon. Gentleman sought an urgent question on this subject, and I think we were all horrified at the photos in the news of the appalling flooding in his area. It is Welsh questions next week, and I encourage him to take up that matter directly with Ministers.
I thank the Leader of the House for giving us an insight into “The Italian Job” meeting that took place, but I should manage expectations: it is going to take a hell of a lot of carrots to see though this darkness.
It is half-term next week and the week after, and some MPs will be taking charge of their children while also coming into the House to vote. Can we look at the arrangements whereby our children have to go through security screening coming into the building, in a way that MPs do not?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point—not the first point; the second one. I am meeting the head of security in Parliament this afternoon to raise a number of issues, including the security arrangements. Obviously, we have to take security very seriously—we cannot cut corners—but there has to be a balance between enabling people such as Members’ children to come in, as well as young work experience students and so on, and protecting everyone who works in this place. I plan to raise that this afternoon.
Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), the closure of York’s only Crown post office, which has been based at 22 Lendal since 1884, was announced last Thursday, without any consultation with key stakeholders, including the high street. Clearly this will have a devastating impact on our city centre. Given the lack of statement from a Minister, may we have a debate in Government time to discuss the future of our high streets and post offices?
I am sorry to hear about the post office closure in the centre of York. Obviously I do not know the precise circumstances or whether there are other post offices—I am sure there must be—in York. [Interruption.] No post office counters whatsoever? Well, I am genuinely sorry to hear that, and I encourage the hon. Lady to seek an Adjournment debate so that she can raise the matter directly with Ministers.