House of Commons
Thursday 18 October 2018
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
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?
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.
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.
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.
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 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?
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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?
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?
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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 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?
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?
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?
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.