Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
The Secretary of State was asked—
Leaving the EU: No Deal
I bring apologies from the Secretary of State this morning. He will not be attending these proceedings because he is attending vital cross-party meetings in Downing Street—[Interruption.] I am sure that Members across the House will understand that those meetings are vitally important at this stage.
In answer to Question 1, in the 2017 autumn Budget, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs was allocated an additional £310 million to support its work on EU exit preparations in this financial year, 2018-19, with a further £10 million being repurposed from existing budgets. DEFRA is using that additional funding to prepare for and deliver its ambitious programme of EU exit activities in readiness for all scenarios, including preparations for the UK leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement, as is the duty of a responsible Government.
Further to what the Minister has just said, I advise the House that the Secretary of State, in keeping with his usual courtesy, informed me last night of his intended absence. I shall greatly miss him, but we look forward to seeing the fellow again before too long.
Well, I am not sure that the House does understand the Secretary of State’s absence, Mr Speaker. DEFRA questions are only half an hour long; surely those meetings could have been delayed for 30 minutes. My question to the Minister is: will DEFRA be 100% ready in the event of us having to leave with no deal?
The Department is working flat out to prepare for no deal. As the House knows, we are bringing on the onshoring of environment, agriculture and fisheries policies, involving 55 major projects and 120 statutory instruments. We will be recruiting around 2,700 officials to ensure that we are well prepared in a no-deal scenario.
We know that householders are stockpiling food and that businesses are spending money that they can ill afford, as is the Minister’s Department, on a no-deal Brexit that would harm the food industry, the farming industry and of course the chemicals industry, which his Department regulates. In a phone call on Tuesday night, the Chancellor said that a no-deal Brexit would be ruled out and off the table by the end of next week. Does the Minister agree?
The best way to avoid no deal is by agreeing a deal, and that is why we are working constructively—[Interruption.] The House made its views clear on the Government’s proposed deal and we are now working constructively with major parties across the House to get a deal in place. I am just disappointed that the Leader of the Opposition did not turn up to do that, and that he has not even agreed with the advice of the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair.
The Secretary of State is sorely missed this morning. I wanted to commend him for his barnstorming speech last night. Hon. Members and others like myself who represent farming constituencies all received letters before Tuesday’s vote from the farming organisations—the National Farmers Union, the Country Land and Business Association and the Tenant Farmers Association—saying that “above all” they wanted to see a no-deal Brexit ruled out. Given the overwhelming majority in Parliament for that, will the Minister give us some reassurance that the Government will support the view of the majority?
Well, I will do my very best to make up for the absence of our esteemed Secretary of State, who did indeed put in a fantastic performance yesterday. I can assure my right hon. Friend that we are working closely with the NFU and the farming sector in seeking to find that deal. We know that many farmers voted to leave, but few wanted to leave with no deal. That is why we are working incredibly hard to ensure that we get that deal into place.
The EU has its own challenges, which it is no doubt seeking to take forward. We are clear that we want to take a deal forward. We felt that the deal was a good deal, but Parliament has had its say. We are now responding constructively in these negotiations, and I am grateful to the Scottish National party for taking that forward. I just wish that Labour would take a similar stance.
Last Saturday I had the honour of attending the plough service to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Staffordshire NFU, an extremely good organisation representing farmers throughout my constituency. At that service, a number of members came up to me and expressed how concerned they are about any prospect of no deal. Will my hon. Friend set out what the consequences would be for my farmers if there were, indeed, no deal?
The Secretary of State has made it clear in his contributions here and at the recent farming conference in Oxford that there could be significant disruption for the farming sector, which is why we are working very hard to make sure that Staffordshire NFU members and farmers across the country get the best possible protection. I meet the NFU every week to listen to and work through its concerns and, of course, the No. 1 priority is to make sure we get this deal. Again, I am grateful to those parties that have sought to become part of that process and dialogue.
I can assure the hon. Lady that I am not the future Prime Minister. That will not happen. She does not have to worry about that. [Interruption.] Well, I am certainly not. I am merely filling in for him while he is not here.
The hon. Lady asks an important question, which other hon. Members have also asked. We want to make sure that protections are in place, and we want to get this deal in place, because a no deal would potentially have a disruptive effect on farmers. We will work together closely to ensure a deal happens.
It is absolutely right that the Government prepare for all eventualities, including no deal, but does my hon. Friend share my sense of incredulity at hearing those who spent most of this week attacking the deal on the table, and attacking every other deal the EU has ever done, now complaining about the prospect of there not being one?
The Minister is a well-intentioned fella. Will he take a strong message from those of us who care about DEFRA, the environment and our farming sector that we do care, that we are willing to help get this right and that we are willing to do so on an all-party basis, as long as we can bury this nonsense of a no-deal Brexit?
The hon. Gentleman is also a good fella with good intentions, and I share his concerns about no deal. What we need to do now is to find a deal that the House can unite behind. The Secretary of State would say that if he were in his place, and it is important that the Leader of the Opposition now joins that process.
I, too, am sorry not to see the Secretary of State in his place at the Dispatch Box after what was quite the bravura audition yesterday. Someone once said:
“The day after we vote to leave, we hold all the cards and we can choose the path we want.”
It seems that those cards and paths have been pretty expensive so far. Can the Minister tell us whether his Department’s largesse has sorted out the export health certificate system, which of course relies on a single spreadsheet? Has he made export agreements with 154 countries to replace the EU agreements? Lastly, has this been the worst poker hand ever played?
Lots of questions there, but I can assure the hon. Lady that I am even more saddened not to see the Secretary of State here because I am having to answer all his questions on this subject.
On the hon. Lady’s substantive point, we are working on the export health certificate process, and we are working on the other trade agreements. My hon. Friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the farming Minister, is working on those issues as well. Each of those steps is being dealt with.
Animal Cruelty Crimes: Sentencing
The Government will introduce the necessary legislation to increase the maximum penalty for animal cruelty from six months’ imprisonment to five years’ imprisonment as soon as parliamentary time allows.
I am grateful for that answer, but the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs called for five-year maximum sentences in 2016, Ministers promised that in 2017 and the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said last June that it would be in place by the end of March this year, but there is still no sign of it happening. Why has there been such a long delay? Can the Under-Secretary give us a firm, reliable timeframe for when this much-needed change will actually take place?
Can the Government get out of crawler gear and get into first or second, because we have to bring about this five-year sentencing? At the moment, someone who pleads guilty to a horrendous crime of animal cruelty gets a maximum of four months, because they get an automatic 30% reduction. It is crazy that huge amounts of animal welfare abuse happens and we have such short sentences. So please get on with it.
Leaving the EU: Care and Protection of Animals
The Government have made it clear that our exit from the EU will not lead to a lowering of our high animal welfare standards. Our regulatory system will offer the same level of assurance of animal welfare following our departure from the EU as it does now. The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 will ensure that existing EU standards are maintained once we leave the EU, and we are actively exploring options for strengthening the UK system in the future.
The measure we announced on 23 December will make sure that there is a ban on third-party sales of puppies and kittens, which will mean that unscrupulous breeders and puppy farmers will no longer be able to hide. This is an important piece of legislation and it shows that we have got into a much higher gear on animal welfare legislation.
The International Trade Secretary has been touring the world negotiating trade deals in the past few months. Will the Minister say precisely what involvement DEFRA Ministers have in ensuring that animal welfare issues are contained in any agreement that that Secretary of State is concluding?
Can the Minister lay to rest some of the vile scare stories that have been emanating in the past few months about how, in certain circumstances in which we may leave the EU, there will be a diminution in animal care standards? Can he confirm that whatever the circumstances after 29 March we will retain the highest possible standards?
Inside or outside the EU, Boohoo, the online retailer, has been found to be advertising clothing as “faux fur” when in fact it has contained animal fur, including rabbit. So may I ask what checks are in place and what action the Government are prepared to take to ensure that there is no animal cruelty in the clothing industry?
Serious and Organised Waste Crime
Last year, the Department commissioned a review of serious and organised crime in the waste sector. Recommendations from that review informed our strategic approach, which we set out in the resources and waste strategy. That includes plans to prevent, detect and deter all forms of waste crime, including with the creation of a joint unit for tackling waste crime and a dedicated disruption team.
I thank the Minister for that answer. We also face the problem of casual fly-tipping. Residents in Guisborough have been appalled by some of the examples we have seen on Wilton Lane and on the moor road. Will she set out what the Government are doing to address that, too?
Fly-tipping is a genuine blight on local communities. Additional powers have been given to councils, and from this month local authorities now have the power to issue penalties of up to £400 to householders who have ignored their duty of care and whose waste is fly-tipped. The message is very clear: when somebody comes to offer to take your waste away, check online and check their licence to see that they are legitimate, because otherwise you could be getting a fine from your council.
Following on from that question, rural crime is a major issue, particularly in the villages around Warwick and Leamington. Across the whole of Warwickshire it is costing about £650,000 to clear up fly-tipping, but wider crime is also an issue. What does the Minister recommend I should be saying to farmers in my communities?
It is important that evidence is gathered to try to tackle the issue. I know that farmers are taking preventive action to try to stop people entering their areas illegally. It matters that we also work together on other issues of rural crime, such as hare coursing, and other significant routes used by serious and organised crime to try to exploit the countryside.
Does the Minister intend to liaise with the Ministry of Justice on increasing the ability of the judiciary to make examples of those who flout the law? The fines are less than the financial advantage of waste disposal, which does not add up.
Leaving the EU: Farming Policy
The Agriculture Bill is a central part of the Government’s programme of legislation to deliver a smooth departure from the European Union. It is the most significant reform of agricultural legislation in more than 70 years. The Bill creates powers to build a new environmental land management system; to incentivise higher animal welfare; to support technology and investment on farms; and to improve fairness and transparency in the supply chain.
I welcome the Agriculture Bill, because for nearly 50 years our farmers have been tied to a fundamentally flawed common agricultural policy where payments are skewed towards the largest landowners. Can the Minister provide further detail on the public goods that will be rewarded under the new scheme?
I thank my hon. Friend for the sterling work he did on the Agriculture Bill Committee and as a member of the DEFRA team until recently. As he says, we are completely changing the focus of our agricultural support for the delivery of public goods. That could include improving habitats, water quality and soil health, promoting biodiversity, advancing animal welfare and allowing public access.
The Minister will have received the letter sent to every single Member of this House from all of the farming leaders asking the Government to take no deal off the table. That would also unlock meaningful cross-party talks on how we get out of this total mess, so why will the Government not do that?
The way to get no deal off the table is to agree a deal and to engage in a discussion about it. I simply say to hon. Members: what kind of deal do they think they would get from the European Union if they are unwilling to countenance no deal? It is nonsense.
I welcome this Government’s commitment to, and Ministers’ earlier responses on, the issues of public goods, the environment and animal welfare. Will my hon. Friend confirm that future agricultural policy will also include a commitment to high-quality food and food safety?
Hill farmers are essential to our landscape, food production, biodiversity and water management. Does the Minister realise that 91% of hill farm incomes come from the basic payment scheme, which his Government are planning to phase out over the next seven years? Will he therefore commit to a bespoke scheme or set of schemes to support upland farmers and other upland businesses?
Upland farmers, including sheep farmers, will be able to readily access many of the public goods listed in clause 1 of the Bill. Organisations such as the Uplands Alliance are very excited about the potential for a new scheme based on payment for the delivery of public goods.
The Bew review is looking into the mechanisms for allocating farm funding across the UK post Brexit, but do the Government intend to launch reviews of the legislative and governance frameworks that may be necessary to maintain a level playing field for Welsh farmers in the UK’s future internal market?
There are two ways in which a UK framework can be delivered. First, it is important to recognise that agriculture is devolved. Although the Welsh Government have asked us to add a schedule to our Bill, which is currently going through Parliament, they also intend to introduce their own future legislation. There are provisions relating to compliance with WTO rules, and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will also provide an approach to state aid rules.
On Tuesday, I met members of the Irish Farmers’ Association—there were other things going on as well as the debate—and they made it very clear to me how vital it is to get a long-term customs arrangement in place as soon as possible. They say that that view is shared by farmers in Northern Ireland. What is the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs doing to make sure that that happens?
The DEFRA team, which includes me, supported the Prime Minister’s deal, because the deal that she brought forward was the way to most closely deliver the outcome of the referendum. That deal has now been rejected by this House, so of course we must consider all alternatives.
Protection of Pollinators
Protecting pollinators and the habitat is a priority for this Government, and our 2017 review of England’s 10-year national pollinator strategy highlights some positive progress. We have also simplified countryside stewardship and introduced new messages to help farmers put pollinators back into our landscapes through our pollinator package.
Three thousand sugar beet farmers will drill their crop this year, 100 of whom will be in my constituency. Many of them rely on neonicotinoids, but it is vital that we rely on scientific evidence. Eleven EU countries have granted emergency authorisation. What are the Government doing to support sugar beet farmers?
I am sympathetic to the issue raised by sugar beet growers. Of course, sugar beet is a non-flowering crop, and it does have a particular issue with the peach potato aphid and the virus that goes with it. The growers did put forward an emergency application. The advice from our expert committee on pesticides was that it did not satisfy the criteria, but we invited them to make a subsequent application.
The Department has not received any reports of foxes being killed in illegal ways, but I would not expect it to, as people are expected to report that to the local police. It is the Ministry of Justice that keeps the statistics on crime records.
The League Against Cruel Sports reports 32 kills last year, which is the bare minimum because it cannot monitor every hunt. May I suggest to Ministers that the reason why they do not collect these figures is that if they did, they would have to do something about enforcing the laws that already exist?
The Hunting Act 2004 makes it clear that, apart from certain exemptions, there is a ban on hunting with dogs. It is important that people take their evidence to the local police forces. I am aware of the incident in Cheshire through social media, and I understand that Cheshire police is investigating it. It is a crime, and it is up to the police force to investigate.
Leaving the EU: Food and Drink Standards
As we leave the EU under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, retained EU law will ensure that we maintain our existing food and drinks standards.
The Secretary of State has previously been reported as promising a genetic food revolution in the new year. In a statement, the National Farmers Union warned in the strongest possible terms against any lowering of food standards post Brexit. Will the Secretary of State or the Minister now put an end to this uncertainty, which the Secretary of State created? Will he accept an amendment to the Agriculture Bill to ensure that the standards of our high-quality produce are never lowered or diluted?
Order. I see that the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) is now scampering into the Chamber. He will have to catch his breath. The fella’s missed his question—dear oh dear! Anyway, it is better later than never. It is good to see the chappie, and I am glad that he is in good health.
We have been absolutely clear that we will not water down or dilute our approach to food standards, food safety or animal welfare in pursuit of a trade deal. Any future treaty establishing a trade deal would of course come back to this House under the provisions of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 and would be subject to a ratification process by this House.
The Codex Alimentarius sets the standards used by the World Trade Organisation. Reportedly, the UK hardly ever speaks up in defence of strong food safety labelling and marketing safeguards at those meetings. What confidence can we have that the UK Government will do so post Brexit?
I do not accept that caricature. Indeed, we worked very hard last year to ensure that a British official took the chairmanship of one of the important Codex committees dealing with food standards, and internationally we are always promoting animal welfare and food standards through organisations such as the OIE and Codex.
The Government recently published the resources and waste strategy, which sets out our plans to reduce plastic pollution. We have already consulted on banning straws, cotton buds and stirrers, and are consulting on extending the carrier bag charge. We will shortly be publishing our consultation on key reforms to existing packaging waste regulations, which will include a deposit refund scheme for drinks containers and increasing consistency in the recycling system.
It is possible to recycle plastic bales, but I am conscious that the secondary market may not be well established. With the reforms that we will shortly be consulting on, my hon. Friend will see that it will be in the interests of producers to ensure that materials are recyclable, otherwise it will cost them more.
I recently visited Canning Street Primary School in my constituency, where the children presented to me their “Keep Benwell Clean” campaign, because they are tired of walking to school through rivers of plastic. Will the Minister accept my invitation to visit the school and explain to the children there why their environment has to be polluted in this way, and what she and local authorities can do to change that?
I commend the children for being so concerned about plastic pollution and litter. I am sure that they are being champions in picking up litter where appropriate. That should be seen no longer as a punishment, but as a duty of civic service. Next time I am in Newcastle, which I anticipate will not be before 29 March, I will do my best to visit the children at that school.
Scotland led the UK in tackling the waste produced from single-use polythene bags, and the Scottish Government are now looking at a deposit return scheme for plastic bottles. Where such a scheme has been used, there have been recycling rates of up to 95%. Will the UK Government consider following suit with a plastic bottle recycling scheme?
We will shortly be publishing our proposals and the next steps towards introducing a deposit return scheme. I will be meeting Roseanna Cunningham again next month; she will have her plastics summit, and we will have a British-Irish Council meeting. Ideally we would like to work together on a UK scheme, and although we are conscious that that might not be possible, we will do what we can.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs continues to progress plans for our departure from the EU, including preparing a comprehensive set of statutory instruments under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 to ensure we have a functioning statute book on day one. We are also progressing the Agriculture Bill and the Fisheries Bill, which have cleared Committee stage recently.
May I just say to the Minister that it is such a shame that his Government are not willing to rule out a no-deal scenario?
The EU pet travel scheme currently allows pet owners to travel between EU countries with their animals with minimal forward planning. That is especially important for guide dog owners. But the Government are now saying that, under a no-deal Brexit, guide dog owners will have to plan their travel at least four months in advance. This is totally unacceptable, so what are the Government doing to ensure that assistance dog owners do not see inferior travel arrangements in the event of a no-deal Brexit?
The guidance that the hon. Lady cites is obviously for a worst-case scenario, but the reality on pet travel schemes is that we would have the freedom to adopt a risk-based approach, and we would anticipate that the EU would do the same. We already have provisions with Norway, for instance, that enable a pet travel scheme to operate even though Norway is outside the European Union. We are in discussion with guide dog charities to address the issue.
As I outlined to the House earlier, we recently published our resources and waste strategy. It is a key point that we need to tackle this serious and organised crime. We have already given the Environment Agency powers that it is using to do so, and indeed given powers to local councils, but there is more to do. We hope to bring forward future legislation to tackle outstanding issues.
On Tuesday, the National Audit Office published a highly critical report on the Government’s monitoring of the natural environment. The report states that DEFRA
“has not…done enough to engage other parts of government with its approach”.
So what confidence can we have in the Secretary of State, who is clearly busy doing other things today, to deliver his promised green Brexit?
We are currently working on the metrics and targets, as set out in our 25-year environment plan, to have something that is sustainable going forward. It is also important to note that we have laid draft clauses of the environmental governance Bill. In them we refer to a policy statement, which will operate right across Government, embedding into what we do as a Government the need to ensure that we leave the environment in a better place than when we inherited it.
That is all very well, but what we need is not warm words. We get many, many warm words from this Department but very little real action, and we need action to protect our natural environment and to bear down on climate change. So what is actually happening in response to this report?
The report was published only yesterday, so we need to consider it and will then reply. Only this week, we launched the clean air strategy, which was recommended by the World Health Organisation as something for other countries around the world to follow. We are going through with a new Agriculture Bill and Fisheries Bill. We are preparing an environment Bill. These are all examples of action, which the House has asked for, on issues such as clean air. There is also what we are doing with our local nature recovery networks, and we are doing all sorts of things to try to improve biodiversity. The hon. Lady will be aware of our commitment to make sure that we achieve a target of 30% marine protected areas around the world by 2030, and we will be launching our final decision on marine conservation zones shortly. So frankly, this Government are acting to make the environment a better place.
It really matters that we work with local authorities to make sure that we improve air quality as quickly as possible. There are broader issues with particulate matter and similar, but we are still behind on nitrogen dioxide. The Greater Manchester area is late in presenting its plan to the Department, and we are continuing to work with it. Where there are those sorts of measures—not a congestion zone but a charging zone for more polluting vehicles—we will work on, and try to fund in the best way we can, the measures needed to mitigate that.
As I have said in reply to earlier questions, we are working very hard to ensure that there is a deal. We want to work with all parties to do that. I was impressed when I met businesses in Scotland with the Food and Drink Federation Scotland. We need to take these steps, and I understand where the company is coming from on those issues.
It was a real pleasure to meet my hon. Friend and a number of his constituents. We will give careful consideration to the amendments tabled to the Bill on Report and also to representations from organisations such as the NFU. The Rural Payments Agency has made significant improvement this year to the delivery of payments under the basic payment scheme, with 94% being paid by the end of December.
The Hunting Act is already tightly drawn, and there has been a mixture of successful and unsuccessful prosecutions so far. It really matters that the police have the evidence presented to them, so that they can make a stronger case to the Crown Prosecution Service to tackle illegal hunting, which we all deplore.
Thank you very much for calling me, Mr Speaker.
One of the most exciting developments of recent times has been the announcement from the University of Manchester of a way of desalinating water through graphene sieves, which can turn it into drinking water. That has huge implications around the world. Does the Minister agree that one of the greatest possible benefits is the decrease in the number of water bottles, which so often find their way into the marine ecosystem?
I also saw that interesting announcement by the University of Manchester, which just shows the benefits of this Government having invested in the university to develop graphene. There are a number of ways in which we can try to reduce the impact of plastics, and we will continue to support water companies in their long-term plans, including on desalination.
Yet another report has been published this morning—this time in The Lancet—highlighting the damage that our food systems are doing to not only public health, with 11 million avoidable deaths, but the climate. I have been banging on about this for more than 10 years in this place. Is there any chance that the Government will ever listen to these reports?
City of York Council is planning to develop the land adjacent to Askham bog, which is a site of special scientific interest. What discussions has the Minister had with the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government about development next to SSSIs?
The hon. Lady will be aware that SSSIs have an exceptionally high protection status under the national planning policy framework, which was updated last year. It is really important that these matters are considered carefully and that such development is avoided, but it will come down to a local decision for the local planning authority.
The Minister has talked about amendments to the Agriculture Bill. Will he and the Secretary of State really look at those amendments, and especially those that maintain high standards for imported foods, so that we do not put our own farmers out of business?
Last week, Heathrow announced that it wanted another 25,000 flights a year through the airport, irrespective of runway 3’s development. What advice has DEFRA given the Department for Transport on the noise and air quality implications of that unwelcome development?
“Oh, very well”, Mr Speaker? I am actually going to ask a topical question, unlike some of our colleagues.
May I remind the ministerial team that until we came under European regulation, we were the dirty person of Europe? We filled our seas with sewage, and we buried our waste in holes in the ground. Did the Minister see the wonderful BBC programme only last Sunday showing the real curse of agricultural plastic waste, which we are doing very little about? Will she and the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food get together with others, on an all-party basis, to try to clean up the environment and get a good deal from Europe?
That was nearly as long as a speech in an Adjournment debate, but the last one of those that the hon. Gentleman secured for me to respond to was about the circular economy of left-over paint, and he did not even show up for that.
In answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question, I would say that he should read the resources and waste strategy. I have already answered the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Derbyshire (Mrs Latham): I said that we are working on this. We need to work with farmers to make sure there is a secondary market for that sort of plastic bale.
At the last EFRA questions, the Secretary of State was in his place and he was typically effusive in his praise for the glorious north-eastern countryside that so many of my constituents enjoy. However, he refused to say how he would protect small-scale farmers, on whom the beauty and variety of our landscape depend, from the massive American agro-industrial machine. Will the Minister now set out his red lines to protect our landscape post Brexit?
Clause 1 of the Agriculture Bill makes explicit provision to support and incentivise our landscapes and countryside to help some of those smaller farmers. The modelling that has been done suggests that the issue is not actually all about size: some of our smaller family farms are technically the most proficient.
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Protection of Historic Church Buildings
The Church of England continues to suffer thefts of metal and other items of historical and architectural interest from its churches. The Archbishop’s Council conducted an inquiry into this, and the trend appears to be gradually moving from east to west and from south to north. I encourage my hon. Friend to look at the Church of England website for ways of protecting his churches more successfully.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer. We are blessed with a great many historic churches in Brentwood and Ongar; too often, they have to be kept locked for very long periods of the week, making them inaccessible to the public. What conversations has she or the Government had with Historic England and the police to ensure that more of our historic churches can be open to the people who wish to use them?
My hon. Friend has a real gem in the form of a beautiful Anglo-Saxon church— St Andrews, Greensted—which, despite the fact that it does not have a metal roof, has suffered these kind of thefts. At the end of last year, the Church of England participated in a Historic England review called Operation Crucible as part of the strategy against metal theft. There is no question but that the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013 needs to be tightened to recognise illegitimate businesses, which often have their own forges and furnaces and melt down the metal before it even reaches scrap dealers’ yards.
In the UK, there are some 340 important historic churches. National lottery funding has made money available to some of them, but there is certainly a shortfall in funds. May I ask the right hon. Lady whether other funding avenues could be made available for preservation works?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. The Church would direct him, his churches and others with historical churches facing the threat of metal theft, towards a Home Office panel for grants to protect religious buildings from hate crimes. Some churches have been recipients of these grants.
Sadly, many of our most beautiful churches are now closed for worship and have been declared redundant. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that Church Commissioners will continue to do all they can to preserve those beautiful buildings?
The Church of England opens as many churches as it closes—there is often a misunderstanding about that—and whether people come to worship or to visit the historical artefacts, increasing footfall through churches is a deterrent to crime and theft. I encourage all hon. Members with beautiful churches in their communities to use them or lose them, and to encourage people to go into them so that we keep them open and keep the criminals out.
The Church of England succeeded in producing a magnificent peal of bells to mark the centenary of the Armistice, and I am sure that churches in the constituencies of many hon. Members took part. Grants are available to restore belfries and bells, and a great effort was made to make churches ready for that historic moment in our nation’s history.
Electoral Commission Committee
The hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South, representing the Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, was asked—
Electoral Commission: Investigatory Powers
The Electoral Commission has ongoing dialogue with the Minister for the Constitution, and it has raised the need for a significant increase to its current maximum fine of £20,000. That will ensure that sanctions are proportionate and provide a genuine deterrent.
We have heard about dark money being involved in elections and the Brexit vote, including the controversial £435,000 donation channelled via the Scottish Tory candidate, Richard Cook, and the Constitutional Research Council to the Democratic Unionist party. The source of that donation is still unclear. My hon. Friend the Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O'Hara) has written to the Electoral Commission to ask for due diligence on that case to be published. Can the hon. Lady advise when that will happen?
In its recent report on digital campaigning, the Electoral Commission recommended greater transparency around the source of such donations, and proposals have been set out. I am sure that officials from the commission will be happy to discuss the matter further with the hon. Gentleman or his hon. Friend.
With respect to the hon. Lady, the Labour party was fined a record amount for failing to declare donations during the 2017 general election. The current shambolic state of affairs in this place means that even if an election is not probable, it is at least possible. I heard the hon. Lady’s answer about increasing fines, but may we have a debate about increasing such fines much higher than £20,000? In that way, political parties would be generally dissuaded from taking such action as it would exceed the cost of doing business.
The Electoral Commission has repeatedly warned that the ability to fine campaigners a maximum of only £20,000 could increasingly be seen as the cost of doing business, and it continues to urge the Government to introduce legislation to strengthen its sanctioning powers for future electoral events.
Transparency in printed literature is partly ensured by the necessity of having an imprint. In my recent report for the Centre for Policy Studies, I argue that digital literature should also have an imprint. Does the Electoral Commission agree?
The Electoral Commission has called for imprints to follow for digital material as they would for printed material. I am sure that officials from the commission will be happy to discuss the matter further with the hon. Gentleman, and we welcome any steps that he can take to urge the Government to take further action in that area.
Our electoral integrity is so important: when people vote we must ensure that they are exactly who they say they are. Since 2003 Northern Ireland has had photographic identification. What does the Electoral Commission feel about strengthening the situation as regards voter integrity?
The commission completed independent evaluation of the May 2018 voter ID pilot trials, and it published details on that analysis and the background data in July 2018. It found that the trials worked well, but it highlighted the need for more evidence in that area. As 3.5 million electors may not have the type of identification required, the commission continues to recommend that electors should be able to apply for a voter card free of charge, as is the case in Northern Ireland.
The commission has the expertise, experience and a proven track record of delivering well-run elections and referendums at short notice. It maintains contingency plans to ensure it has made all appropriate preparations to deliver a referendum, should there be one.
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Persecution of Christians
I do realise that the grouping will make this sound rather like Foreign Office questions for Christianity—but then, the Anglican Communion is the third largest global organisation in the world, after the United Nations and the Catholic Church.
The Church of England has regular discussions with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on freedom of religion and belief. I am pleased to announce to the House that my right hon. Friend Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, invited the Bishop of Truro, before Christmas, to lead an independent review of UK Government support for persecuted Christians.
The number of Members who attended the meeting in the House yesterday about the Open Doors report shows just what huge interest there is in this issue. It was very disturbing to hear about the significant increase in the persecution of Christians, and indeed of people of other faiths, in the past year or two. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that as the report is compiled, the bishop will talk with as many Members as possible? We hear from our constituents and from around the world about individual cases of persecution.
I am delighted to give my hon. Friend that assurance. I, too, was really shocked by the report presented in Parliament yesterday, which shows that 40 countries out of the 50 on the Open Doors watch list are places where Christians experience very high or extreme levels of persecution. I shall go from this place to a meeting at the Foreign Office with the Foreign Secretary, as well as the bishop, and I will make that request directly to him.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I echo the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) in welcoming the Open Doors “World Watch List” report, launched here in Parliament yesterday.
With regard to Commonwealth countries on the list, we heard, for example, some very harrowing reports of abuse against Christian communities in Nigeria. What effort can the Commonwealth side of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office make in helping to mitigate such persecution?
Nigeria is high up the Open Doors watch list of countries where Christians suffer persecution. I am sorry to say that in the past year 3,731 Christians were reported killed by the activity of extremists in Nigeria. As it is a former dependency of the United Kingdom, the Government ought to have some way of having greater influence. I know that the Archbishop of Canterbury, who is knowledgeable about Nigeria, uses every endeavour to bring pressure on the Government of Nigeria to better protect the Christians in their country.
I am delighted to be able to tell the House that since the last set of Church Commissioners questions, the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) and I have paid a joint visit to a Minister of State at the Foreign Office to impress on him the importance of officials in the Foreign Office, the Department for International Development and other Government Departments, such as the Home Office, taking up the course for a better understanding of religious literacy. We were given assurances by the Minister that this would be impressed on officials.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her answers thus far. One area of the world where persecution is at its highest is Pakistan, where there have been a number of high-profile cases. What is the Church doing to combat these terrible attacks on Christians, who just want to celebrate their religion?
Pakistan is very high up on the Open Doors watch list of countries where Christians suffer persecution. I am sure that like me, my hon. Friend will have heard the case of Asia Bibi raised with the Prime Minister yesterday in the House. It is important not only that we look for a solution for her and her family that assures her protection, but that we remember that what we do on behalf of Christians in other countries can impact others around the world in the same way. The persecution of Christians in Pakistan is high on our agenda.
As has already been mentioned, yesterday saw the launch of the Open Doors “World Watch List 2019” here in Parliament. Can my right hon. Friend advise me of what use the Church of England makes of the analysis of the trends in the persecution of Christians across the globe in its discussions with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office?
Obviously the watch list is a useful guide to where the focus needs to be. The bishops take special interest in particular countries that are high up on that watch list. Bishops regularly pay visits to countries where Christians are persecuted. In fact, the bishop responsible for the plight of Christians in the middle east and Palestine is currently paying his regular annual visit to look at the decimation of the Christians in that region.
I was interested to hear that the right hon. Lady is about to meet the Secretary of State. He wrote over Christmas in The Daily Telegraph:
“It is not in our national character to turn a blind eye to suffering”,
and that the issue is about
“our deeds as well as our words.”
Will the right hon. Lady say something about the deeds she would like to see from the Foreign Secretary?
The Foreign Secretary has acted by bringing in a bishop—an independent person—to review the work of the Foreign Office in relation to the persecution of Christians abroad. Three areas will be assessed: the level of interaction between Churches and organisations overseas with British or foreign diplomatic missions in the protection of Christians; the experience of staff at the FCO, the Department for International Development and the Home Office, who may have been on the receiving end of approaches from Churches and other organisations seeking help for persecuted Christians; and the feedback of international organisations on British activities and an assessment of the approaches of other countries’ diplomatic missions to the persecution of Christians.
House of Commons Commission
The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—
House of Commons Chamber: Electronic Voting System
The Commission has had no discussions on the costs of installing an electronic voting system in the Chamber. Its responsibility in this matter is limited to the financial or staffing implications of any change to the present system, were a change agreed by the House. If the House agreed to pursue electronic working, further work by the House service in conjunction with the digital service would be needed to accurately identify the investment, planning and development required to deliver electronic voting.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the answer. I accept that a change has to be a decision of the House, but the reality is that this is not just about democracy anymore; it is about health and safety. Six hundred Members trying to get through the Lobby the other night was an incredibly worrying situation: if Mr Speaker had called for the doors to be closed, it would not have been physically possible for the Doorkeepers to do so. There was claustrophobia, and we know the issues of Members with health challenges and Members who are pregnant. The House of Commons Commission needs to consider the issue from the perspective of safety in the workplace environment, with democratic considerations to one side.
I thank the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues for their questions—I think electronic voting will be my specialist subject on “Mastermind”. He has come up with a new angle, and I support the point he makes. Members in the packed Division Lobby when the Government were defeated very heavily will have noticed that the congestion was significant, and there were risks associated with that.
On the back of the hon. Gentleman’s question, I will ask the authorities to look at doing a health and safety risk assessment. As he will know, and as I have stated previously, if he wants to pursue the matter—I understand that he has perhaps not yet done so—he needs to ask the Procedure Committee to look at the whole subject of electronic voting.
The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—
Promotion of Marriage
The most recent figures published by the Church of England show that in 2017 the Church conducted 41,000 marriages and services of prayer and dedication. The church wedding is affordable: at less than £500, the cost of a wedding in church is not the main part of what it costs to get married. Free of charge, the clergy offer advice to help tailor the ceremony for the couple and, perhaps most importantly, to prepare them for their lives together.
Church wedding fees can put some couples off marrying in church. Will the right hon. my Friend commend the excellent initiative led by my own minister, Mike Smith, vicar of St John’s, Hartford? Along with volunteers from the church, he has put together a wedding package for three couples consisting of a church wedding, a photographer, flowers, cake, a reception, and even wedding dress alterations, all for £1,000. Is that not a model that other churches could follow?
We availed ourselves of the opportunity to have our children baptised in St Mary’s Undercroft, and our daughters were married at St Margaret’s, Westminster. Are those facilities well known, and are they well used? It is a great tradition. Are Members of Parliament aware of the facilities available to them, and do they use them?
The hon. Gentleman has done the House a service in reminding all colleagues that that opportunity is open to them. I know that many Members have experienced wonderful family occasions. However, in my capacity as Chairman of the Joint Committee on the draft Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill, I should warn colleagues that we shall need to look very carefully at what facilities will remain available while the House is being restored.