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Commons Chamber

Volume 657: debated on Thursday 28 March 2019

House of Commons

Thursday 28 March 2019

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: Fisheries Policy

The Government’s vision for future fisheries policy as we leave the European Union was set out in our July 2018 fisheries White Paper. A sea of opportunity exists for all of the United Kingdom’s coastal communities, provided we ensure that we vote to leave the European Union in an orderly fashion.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for setting the scene, but will the Government support the amendment to the Fisheries Bill tabled by me and colleagues that will promote the fairer distribution of fishing quota, more environmentally sustainable fishing methods and a much better and greater opportunity to revitalise coastal communities such as Lowestoft?

My hon. Friend is an impressive advocate for fishing communities, not least his own in Lowestoft. He is absolutely right: as we leave the European Union, we must reallocate additional quota in order to ensure that under-12 metre vessels get a fairer share of fishing opportunities, not least because the way in which they fish is of course environmentally sustainable, and also contributes to the growth and prosperity of communities that have been neglected for far too long.

Over the years, the face of the fishing industry has changed, as is reflected in the town of Fleetwood. We export 70% of what we land, and we import the vast majority of what we consume as a country. With a view to preventing fish rotting at the borders, what is the Secretary of State’s assessment of how tariffs or trade uncertainty could impact the industry after we leave the common fisheries policy?

The agreement that the Prime Minister has negotiated with the European Union allows us to have tariff and quota-free access to the European Union. We can have the best of both worlds—not only, once more, full control over our exclusive economic zone with additional fishing opportunities, but the opportunity to ensure that that excellent produce finds a market in Europe and beyond.

Under the withdrawal agreement, what is to stop the European Union saying, “Unless you allow us to carry on plundering all your fish as now, we’ll put you into the backstop”?

I have enormous respect for my hon. Friend, but I think he misunderstands the nature of the backstop. If the backstop were ever to come into operation—of course we hope it would not—no fishing vessels from any European nation could fish in our waters without our permission, and at the same time we would have full access to their markets. I repeat: the backstop is not a desirable outcome, but were we in it, we would be master of our own seas, and also able to export our fish to foreign markets.

I represent the constituency of Strangford and the fishing village of Portavogie. Will the Secretary of State outline to me what progress has been reported to him regarding the voisinage agreement, issued by his Republic of Ireland counterparts? In the past few months, they seized two Northern Ireland boats—British boats—and their crew.

The fishermen of Strangford and the Ards peninsula are people close to my heart. It is absolutely right that since the recent actions we have been in touch with the Irish Government specifically in order to ensure that we can have a fair allocation of fishing opportunities across the island of Ireland and its waters. The Republic of Ireland Government know how seriously we take this issue, and how urgent it is to reform.

I was amazed and disappointed this week that the Government whipped their MPs to vote for a huge loophole in post-Brexit fishing rules that would allow a cruel and inhumane method of fishing to continue. The 5% loophole that allows electro pulse beam trawling is cruel and destructive. It destroys our seabeds and kills juvenile fish, and it is so intensely destructive that it breaks the vertebrae of cod. Will the Secretary of State now work with the Opposition to bring forward a brief statutory instrument to close this loophole that allows UK boats to use this cruel and inhumane fishing method?

We always want to work with the Opposition to ensure that the highest standards of environmental and marine welfare are maintained, but I should say that it is one of the opportunities that leaving the European Union gives us to ensure that Dutch vessels that have been using pulse fishing in our waters end that cruel practice.

Leaving the EU: Farming Policy

The Agriculture Bill will underpin an ambitious new system based on paying public money for public goods. This will support a profitable farming sector that produces world-class food while protecting and enhancing our precious countryside.

Will my right hon. Friend reassure the farmers of Brecon and Radnorshire, and indeed the farmers of the United Kingdom, that whether there is a deal or no deal, their future will be of paramount importance once we leave the EU?

I can reassure my hon. Friend that farmers will be of paramount importance no matter which scenario we end up with. With regard to upland farmers, I can reassure him that my Department is in close contact with the sheep sector in preparing for these scenarios. Indeed, at yesterday’s EFRA Select Committee I specifically referenced the effect of EU most-favoured nation tariffs on sheep exports in a no-deal scenario.

The Government talk about a trading relationship that is “as close as possible” with the EU, but they have repeatedly rejected the best way of securing it, which is a permanent customs union and strong alignment with the single market. Given that 90% of Welsh lamb exports go to the EU, will the Minister listen to Welsh hill farmers and press for the closer economic relationship that they need?

Along with all the other options, the House rejected that option last night. It is a fact, of course, that 30% of the lamb produced in the UK is exported to the EU. Indeed, a large proportion of Welsh lamb, with its smaller carcases, meets that market. We are well aware of the problems that would occur. Of course, the best way to avoid that situation is to vote for the deal.

I chair the all-party parliamentary group for the horse, and we heard yesterday that 87 horses were killed on our roads last year. Will it be possible under future farming policy to extend bridle-paths? Will the Minister consider extending the period for the registration of existing paths so that none are lost and so that our overstretched volunteers and authorities have time to confirm them?

Yes, I am aware that a number of stakeholders are not aware of that deadline. I would be happy to meet my right hon. Friend to discuss that. One of the public goods that we could deliver through the Agriculture Bill is better public access, which could include bridleways to join up existing paths so that not as many horses have to use the roads.

Looking at farming policy, the Government announced recently that they would allow farming produce into Northern Ireland from the Republic of Ireland tariff free. What is the Minister’s opinion on the European Union reciprocating that?

By not only announcing our tariff regime for other borders but making it clear that we do not wish to have a hard border across the island of Ireland, we hope that the Republic of Ireland will show a similarly flexible view and that the European Union will not impose any restrictions that the Irish Government would not wish to follow.

We are discussing farming and food, so there must be a case for hearing without delay Mr Richard Bacon.

Mr Speaker, because I can lip read, I know that you want me to ask a question about pork and pork products, and it is true that we have a very successful industry, but it is—unfortunately, from the point of view of this question—unsubsidised by the British taxpayer. However, farm payments are central to farm policy. One of the horses running in the 14.50 at Cheltenham recently was called Single Farm Payment. Unfortunately, the horse came last. Can Ministers tell us what implications there are for farm payments, or do they feel that, as usual, delays were inevitable?

I can report to the House that performance of the basic payment scheme in 2018 was much better than in previous years, with 98.8% of payments being made. We have guaranteed that the system will apply for this year and next year. Moving forward, we will have an exciting new scheme under the Agriculture Act—as I hope it will then be—that enables us to green the economy and make basic payments to more environmental schemes.

The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley), said in a recent Delegated Legislation Committee:

“The Government look forward to negotiations on the UK’s future economic partnership with the EU, during which we will be able to discuss the relationship between the UK’s new GI schemes and the EU schemes.”—[Official Report, Eleventh Delegated Legislation Committee, 26 March 2019; c. 10.]

We now have confirmation that brand protections for high-quality products, including Scotch beef, Scotch lamb and Scotch whisky, have become bargaining chips in the big Brexit bodge, and that there will be no support on day one of a no-deal Brexit. What financial compensation will be offered to Scotland’s food and drink producers for this UK Government policy blunder?

I have to say that that is a load of nonsense. British consumers rely on geographical indicators to ensure that products they buy from the continent are kosher—are the right thing—and I think they would expect the same from us. I think there would be very productive negotiations, and I hope that we would reach quite rapid decisions on most of them.

There is a crisis of species decline in this country. While we can all see the virtues of operations like rewilding and species introduction, it is in the farmed environment where we will turn it around. Will my right hon. Friend assure us that in the Agriculture Bill and in Government policy, there will be a drive towards the right incentives to protect species and reverse the decline in biodiversity?

It is not just that that is within the Agriculture Bill; it is front and centre within it and central to the way we will continue to support the agriculture industry and deliver the public goods that taxpayers want.

I very much agree with the Minister when he talks about the importance of Europe as an export market for our lamb producers and hill farmers, but last night 160 of his colleagues voted for a no-deal Brexit, including the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon). A no-deal Brexit would expose lamb exports to a 12.8%, plus €171.3 per 100 kg, tariff. Will that be good for sheep farmers?

The best way of preventing a no-deal Brexit is to vote for the deal. Nothing yesterday was supported by the House. The deal is the best thing for agriculture, the future and our long-term relationship with the European Union.

The problem is that the numbers participating in countryside stewardship continue to plummet. Morale at Natural England is at an all-time low, and there is the real problem that no money is going into environmental land management schemes. What will the Government do to move us towards an environmental payment scheme?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right in some ways. We have not delivered the support for those environmental schemes that we should have delivered. I am pleased that the Rural Payments Agency has now taken that over from Natural England. I met its chief executive this week. If we cannot to get the money out on time, other farmers will not be incentivised to join those schemes, so my priority is to improve the situation, as we did with the basic payments scheme.

Aichi Biodiversity Targets

The Government’s progress report was published this month, and of 19 targets assessed, five are on track and 14 show progress, but at an insufficient rate. The Aichi targets are multifaceted and global in scope, and they include a mixture of processes and outcomes, which are not always specific. Their assessment requires a degree of interpretation and judgment. Nevertheless, the report identifies progress, but there is more that we need to do.

I thank the Minister for that response. As she says, we are on track to miss 14 of the 20 targets. Given that they are meant to be achieved by 2020—next year—what talks has she had with the Treasury to achieve target 20, on mobilising financial resources? Will they be reflected in the forthcoming comprehensive spending review?

As my right hon. Friend the Minister of State just pointed out, one of the changes that will be coming as a result of our leaving the European Union is that the UK—England, certainly—will have a new way of doing environmental land management, and the public services will be paid for by taxpayers. Many of the targets are quite nebulous—[Interruption.] Because they are not particularly specific and are open to interpretation and judgment. We are working carefully on that and have made excellent progress on marine conservation. We are doing global work to ensure that, when the next targets are agreed, which will happen next year for 2030, the UK will lead the way in ensuring that 30% of oceans are marine conservation areas.

15. I recently took Neil Garrick-Maidment, the excellent CEO of the Seahorse Trust in Topsham in my constituency, of which I have just become patron, to see the Secretary of State to discuss the illegal trade in seahorses. He will remember that 150 million seahorses are traded illegally for the curio and medical trade. Following that meeting, will he commit the UK to playing a lead role in preserving seahorses around the world? What measures does he suggest we can take to police the online trade in seahorses better? (910086)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State very much enjoyed that meeting and visit. He and I are committed to ensuring we do more to protect the wonderful species that are part of our natural habitat, including our marine habitat. We will work hard to do exactly what my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir Hugo Swire) is seeking to achieve.

Only about 4% of the world’s oceans are protected. Although I hear what the Minister just said about the aim to increase that, what work can we do with our overseas territories to increase that far more quickly, not least to have an overall target of reducing plastic in the oceans?

The hon. Gentleman asks an important question. Once we designate the marine conservation zones, which I believe will happen in the next two months, the UK will have comfortably exceeded the 30% target that we have set ourselves for the rest of the world by 2030. One of the key things that I do at G7 Environment and in other forums is speak to other nations to see what more we can do to get more designations. The hon. Gentleman is also right about plastics. He will be aware that at the spring statement the Chancellor specifically referred to the overseas territories. Ascension Island will be moving its entire economic zone to fully protected status, and we will continue to work on the Blue Belt programme, which I think will be one of the greatest achievements of this Government.

We have heard that the UK is on track to meet only five of the 20 Aichi biodiversity targets. This is an environmental and climate emergency. Does the Minister—and the Secretary of State—agree with the around 50 councils and thousands of young people who have declared an environment and climate emergency? Will they today commit to join Labour in declaring a national environment and climate emergency?

We are already ahead of the game, with a 25-year environment plan published last year, and the strategies and the work that are ongoing. We are making significant improvements in improving our natural environment, and I genuinely hope that the whole House comes together and gets behind the plan to ensure that we leave the environment in a better state than we inherited it.

The question was: will the Minister commit to join me in declaring a national environment and climate emergency? The answer, to be honest, was a bit of a fudge. Labour is going to bring this forward, with or without the Government’s support. Will the Government think again and commit to announcing an environment and climate emergency, and will they commit to meeting the youth strike action for climate representatives?

DEFRA will account for more than half the achievements under the Paris agreements, so I can assure the hon. Lady that work is very much under way on improving the climate and also the environment. This is about actions rather than words. I pay particular tribute to those who joined the Great British spring clean this weekend and who will do so for the next few weeks. I am very happy to work with young people, as we are with our Year of Green Action 2019. We are already working with the Step Up To Serve brigade, which we will be doing with the National Citizen Service.

Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme

4. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the seasonal agricultural workers scheme. [R] (910075)

We regularly have detailed discussions on the seasonal workers pilot with colleagues across Government. I will continue to work closely with Home Office colleagues in particular to ensure the successful operation of the pilot.

Farmers say that the pilots began too late for this spring season, and the Home Office does not appear to understand the needs of the sector. On 14 February, James Porter of the National Farmers Union Scotland told the Immigration and Social Security Co-ordination (EU Withdrawal) Public Bill Committee that the pilot was too small scale and needed to increase immediately to 10,000 places. Will the Minister have discussions with his Home Office colleagues so that the labour needs of the sector can be met as a matter of urgency?

The first workers under the scheme will be arriving in April. Indeed, I met one of my officials who had just come back from Ukraine to ensure that the scheme works well. There will be 2,500 workers coming in each year, and I will also meet with the president of the NFU this afternoon to discuss what views she may have on that.

5. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the pilot underlines the Government’s commitment to ensuring that farmers have certainty post Brexit, and that the one way to ensure that that certainty continues is to vote for the deal when it comes back before the House? (910076)

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Let me make it clear that EU workers already here will be able to stay. During the implementation period, people will be able to come to live, work and study from the EU and there will be registration scheme. Indeed, in a no-deal situation, European economic area citizens will be able to live and work here without a visa for three months, and they can continue to stay here, applying for European temporary leave to remain for 36 months after that, so we are still open for EU workers to come here in every scenario.

Two thousand five hundred—what an absolute and utter joke. The farmers and growers in my constituency are laughing at it. This is where an obsession with immigration gets us: to crops left to wither in the field. The NFU says that 90,000 workers are required for a feasible working scheme. When will the Minister get serious about meeting that target?

I have already said that we will continue with the possibility of EU workers coming here. I know that a number of Bulgarians and Romanians continue to come here, and there are about 29,000 seasonal workers in the country. Of course, the best way to make sure that we get into a stable situation is to vote for the deal.

This issue is bigger than just seasonal workers on farms: throughout the rural economy, there are people working in food processing, logistics and a wide range of other sectors. We still need people from the EU to come here, so will the Minister assure the House that our immigration policy post Brexit will continue to be open and welcoming?

I can absolutely give that assurance. There are 400,000 EU nationals working in the UK food chain, and we would be delighted for them to stay here, work and contribute to our economy. Indeed, I am told that one reason why some may not come is the weakness of sterling, but if we get the deal through, I would not be surprised if sterling hardened.

Puppy Welfare Standards

The Government announced in December that we would ban third-party sales of puppies and kittens in England, and the necessary regulations are being prepared. The ban will address welfare concerns associated with the sale of puppies by dealers and pet shops and will build on recent improvements to the licensing of dog breeding and pet sales.

As puppy smuggling is punishable as an animal cruelty offence, will the Minister confirm that legislation to introduce five-year sentences for animal cruelty remains a priority for this Government and will be introduced as soon as possible?

I can confirm that that is absolutely the case. As soon as parliamentary time allows, the Government will introduce legislation to increase those sentences from six months to five years. Like my hon. Friend, I have zero tolerance for the abhorrent crime of puppy smuggling. I look forward to discussing the matter more fully with him in the Westminster Hall debate that he has secured for next week.

I was inspired suddenly, Mr Speaker.

I asked the Minister about this when he appeared before the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs yesterday: he says that he will bring back the sentencing Bill and the animal sentience Bill when we have parliamentary time, but we have spent an awful lot of parliamentary time sitting around, twiddling our thumbs and waiting for Brexit votes. He could bring forward that legislation very soon, could he not?

Yes, five-year sentencing for animal cruelty must be brought in as soon as possible, but my question is about puppies being smuggled in from abroad. Under EU legislation, five puppies can be brought in legally. Very often, fraudulent veterinary certificates are issued, puppies come in very young and with no socialisation, and it is criminal gangs that profit. When we leave the European Union, can we cut the number of puppies that can come in legally from five to two?

I thank the Chairman of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee for raising that point, as he has done several times in the Committee. I can assure him that once we leave, we will be able to look at the number of puppies that can be brought in.

Wildlife Crime Enforcement

I have discussed certain issues with Home Office Ministers; I am thinking particularly of recent discussions about hare coursing. The hon. Gentleman will recognise that it is for chief constables to determine how offences are enforced, but I welcome the move by police and crime commissioners to increasingly make that a priority for their local constabularies.

Foxhunting is illegal in this country, yet it is allowed and even encouraged by some landowners. This is not trail hunting; it involves the pain and suffering of animals before they are killed. Will the Minister confirm that she supports the prosecution of those involved in this cruel activity, including landowners—even if they are Members of this House?

I think the hon. Gentleman was about to make an allegation against somebody. It is important that evidence be provided to the police, and it is for them to make a recommendation to the Crown Prosecution Service. If anybody is breaking the law on this sort of activity, I fully welcome prosecutions being made.

What investigations is the Minister making on what drives rural and wildlife crime, so that the police can understand it and respond appropriately?

Both DEFRA and the Home Office fund the national wildlife crime unit and support its work in investigating crimes. They undertake analysis and share intelligence with police forces. There are six wildlife crime priorities—badgers, bat and raptor persecution, illegal trade in species covered by the convention on international trade in endangered species, poaching and freshwater mussels, but more can be done locally, and I am aware that hare coursing in particular concerns many Members of Parliament.

The Minister will be aware of the devastating impact that dog attacks on livestock can have for farmers. What discussions are the Government having with colleagues about possible amendment to the Dogs (Protection of Livestock) Act 1953 to better enable police forces to address the matter?

Strictly speaking, livestock is not wildlife, but there are protections and it will really be a case of local communities working together. A lot more could probably be done to educate people about how they control their dogs when they are out on a country walk.

Schools and Hospitals: No-idling Zones

8. What discussions he has had with local authorities on no-idling zones outside schools and hospitals to tackle poor air quality. (910079)

9. What discussions he has had with local authorities on no-idling zones outside schools and hospitals to tackle poor air quality. (910080)

It is already an offence to leave an engine running unnecessarily when the vehicle is stationary on a public road. Local authorities can issue fixed penalty notices to drivers who leave engines running after being asked to turn them off. Westminster Council is probably the most successful at this, but I encourage local authorities to use their powers so that more people stop idling unnecessarily.

What discussions has the Minister had with the Chancellor about the need to establish ring-fenced funding for local authorities to implement measures to protect our children’s health where they are disproportionately affected by toxic air in areas where they live, learn and play?

The Government are investing more than £3.5 billion in the strategy to improve air quality. I remind the hon. Gentleman that this matter is devolved to the Mayor of London. I know that he is seeking to be active on this, but there is more that local authorities can do today that is self-financing in order to improve air quality, including on this issue of idling.

Given that the Secretary of State accepts that air quality is a matter of social justice and health inequality, why is he doing so little to support low-income households to switch to cleaner forms of transport?

I am not sure where the hon. Gentleman gets that impression from. We have offered grants to people who want to switch to electric vehicles. We are investing several billion pounds in different strategies to help people make that switch. We outlined other issues of air quality in our clean air strategy, which the World Health Organisation has said is something that every other country in the world should follow.

Will the hon. Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes) not seek to intercede at this time? His question might not be reached, but he has a similar inquiry. Get in there, man.

12. Thank you, Mr Speaker. I was just thinking the same thing, but I did not want to break protocol by trying.What assessment has the Department made of air quality on the M6 from junction 9 to 10A, where it cuts through my constituency, and what work can be done to mitigate the effect of traffic on air quality? (910083)

I have met Highways England with the Minister of State, Department for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), on several occasions. The chief executive holds a fortnightly meeting to discuss air quality and the progress that it is required to make under our air quality plan, and I am convinced that I can organise a direct meeting for my hon. Friend with him to discuss his specific issue.

Air quality around schools is a concern, and in my constituency and west Cornwall we are working up a plan to plant 20,000 trees with our school children by the end of 2020 to improve their air quality. Will the Minister meet me to see how we can deliver that ambition?

I welcome anyone who wants to plant trees. I think it is fair to say that the scientific evidence does not definitively say that trees help air quality, but they are good in so many other ways. It is about improving the local environment. We must continue to do more to ensure that children are not affected by poor air quality, and I welcome activities around the country to achieve that.

Rural Crime

There is no formal assessment of the cost of rural crime, but NFU Mutual, the highly respected insurance organisation, has estimated the cost of rural crime at £44.5 million in 2017.

Two weeks ago, I was due to meet the National Farmers Union and farmers from my local community. Unfortunately, on the day, one of the farmers could not attend because the previous night 19 ewes had been slaughtered in his fields. I understand that across Warwickshire we lost 27 ewes, slaughtered in the field, with entrails left there. It is a growing problem in our communities, among our farmers, with a significant economic impact on them. Part of the problem is down to lack of law enforcement and police numbers. Will the Secretary of State advise me on what I should say to farmers in my community about how to prevent this in future?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue. He once more brings to our attention a horrific series of crimes. I would hope that he and I will be able to talk to the local police and crime commissioner to ensure that they have the resources and powers required. If anything more is required, I am more than happy to talk to Home Office colleagues to ensure that the incidents he has drawn to the House’s attention are not repeated.

Topical Questions

I call the former president or patron of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, Sir Nicholas Soames.

I am very keen to see rare breeds survive, which is why I suspect the leader—ex-leader, rather—of the Liberal Democrats, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), is bobbing.

More to the point, tomorrow is the last day on which the permanent secretary at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be in her post. Clare Moriarty is an outstanding public servant. She is going on to become permanent secretary at the Department for Exiting the European Union. On behalf of my ministerial team, and I think Members across the House, I ask us all to record our thanks to an outstanding public servant for everything she has done to ensure that the environment, rural affairs and food have been at the heart of Government policy making and have been carried forward with the high standards of professionalism that we expect of a civil servant.

I thank my right hon. Friend and join him in paying tribute to an obviously very distinguished civil servant. One has to wonder what she has done to earn such a poisoned chalice.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that of all the landscapes in Britain, one of the most greatly cherished are the uplands? Does he agree that, inevitably, there is a good deal of concern and anxiety at this time as the Brexit policies unfold? Will he agree to receive a delegation from the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust and the Moorland Association to discuss with him some of the more pressing issues that are causing serious concern in an already hard-pressed community?

My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. Our uplands are one of our environmental glories, and it is critical that those who live and work in the uplands and those who, for a variety of reasons, feel that their way of life and some of the economic activities that sustain communities in the uplands might be under threat, have the reassurance of knowing that this Government are on their side. I would be delighted to convene such a meeting.

T2. The Government declared in response to the Somerset flooding that “money is no object”. This week, ground investigation works are starting on a £40 million flood risk management scheme for Preston and South Ribble. Will the Minister explain why a maximum bid of £1.3 million is available for the flood defence grant-in-aid fund for a project that cost £9.7 million to deliver, as outlined in the Lancashire County Council report regarding Hurleston brook, known as the Jacob report? (910092)

The House will be aware that we increased the amount of money being spent on flood defences between 2015 and 2021—£2.1 billion across those six years—better to protect more than 300,000 homes. The hon. Lady will be aware that there are formulas for how we can allocate money to projects. My right hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon) opened up the doors with a partnership funding approach, which is largely working. However, I am very conscious that the hon. Lady is doing diligent work on behalf of her constituents to get better flood protection.

T3. On a recent visit to the Northmoor Meat Company in my constituency, which deals in organic, sustainably sourced beef, raised on the banks of the River Thames, I also saw the great work that it does with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds to provide scrapes and nesting habitats for birds such as lapwing and curlew. What are Ministers doing to help farmers, the real guardians of our environment, with conservation work? (910093)

My hon. Friend draws attention to just one of many ways in which farmers are making sure that our natural environment is enhanced. Our new environmental land management schemes should better reward farmers and allow other landowners, such as the RSPB, to continue their good work.

T6. Last week in Transport questions, the Minister of State, Department for Transport, the hon. Member for Hereford and South Herefordshire (Jesse Norman), told me that the Government were taking the dangers of toxic air to children’s health “very seriously”, but that the issue was “complex and multifaceted”. Given that UNICEF tells us that 4.5 million children are growing up in areas with unsafe levels of particulate matter, does the Secretary of State agree that his colleagues in the DFT need to pull their finger out, because under existing plans, those toxic levels of air pollution will continue for the next decade? (910097)

I absolutely agree that we need to take the issue of air quality more seriously. It is absolutely the No. 1 environmental threat to public health, and that is why our recent air quality strategy, which I launched with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, was applauded by the World Health Organisation as an example for other countries to follow.

T4.   Chichester District Council has been incredibly successful in reducing litter throughout the district, thanks to its “Against Litter” campaign, in which over 170 areas have been adopted by residents, including me, who keep them clean and tidy. The council will fund the second phase of this project, which will tackle fly-tipping and increase knowledge of the realities of waste disposal, but what steps are being taken to ensure that Government bodies such as the Environment Agency support local authorities such as Chichester in these initiatives? (910094)

My predecessor in this role, now Leader of the House, introduced a national litter strategy, and since then a number of organisations, including Chichester council and my hon. Friend, both of whom I must congratulate, have been energetic in making sure that we deal with this scourge. My Department will do everything possible to make sure that every single arm of Her Majesty’s Government is committed to making sure that our natural environment is cleaner and greener as a result of joint efforts.

The hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan) might invite the Secretary of State to Chichester to observe the situation at close quarters; I feel sure that he will say yes.

The Secretary of State will have seen that it emerged in The Sunday Times last week that the Department for Transport has pressurised Heathrow to hide information about the noise levels that the hundreds of thousands of people living around Heathrow will experience if and when runway 3 goes ahead. Does he share my concern, and that of my and many other Members’ constituents, that people have been kept in the dark about the noise that runway 3 will bring, which will be way above WHO recommended levels and way above what most people experience at the moment?

The hon. Lady asks if I have read The Sunday Times; I tend not to read the Sunday newspapers—it is better for my health. She asks a very serious question, and I will raise it with John Holland-Kaye, the chief executive of Heathrow.

T5. Will the Minister reaffirm the Government’s commitment to ending single-use plastics? Will she also pay tribute to the almost 90 volunteers from across Southport who came out last week to help clean up our beach at Ainsdale? (910096)

The Government are absolutely committed to that aim. We are making good progress on regulations to achieve that, on cross-Government strategies, and on working with industry to do precisely what my hon. Friend wants. I praise the volunteers who went out litter-picking to keep the beach clean; I used to play on that beach as a child, and it is great to see that it is in safe hands under the stewardship of my hon. Friend, working with the local community.

Will the Secretary of State agree to meet Humber MPs to discuss making funding for a national flood resilience centre in the Humber area a priority in the comprehensive spending review?

The Minister with responsibility for the environment, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), has already done so, and of course I would be happy to do so at any time.

The Government have a fantastic track record on improving standards for animals. In 2015, the compulsory microchipping of dogs was brought in. However, there is an anomaly: there is no such provision for cats. The Secretary of State knows that I have a private Member’s Bill on cats that would mean cats were treated in the same way as dogs. I am grateful for my meeting with him last week. Will he assure me that the Government will do everything that they can to take the issue forward, so that cats get the same treatment as dogs?

Most studies now indicate that we have an excess of incineration capacity to deal with residual waste. Is there not a danger that, if we build more incinerators, waste that would otherwise be recycled will be diverted to those incinerators?

The UK has some of the highest standards of animal welfare in the world, but American attitudes to farm animal welfare remain very backward. Given that there is now a cross-party consensus in this House that we should enshrine recognition of animal sentience in law, should the Government not require the United States to pass equivalent legislation at federal level as a precondition to any trade deal?

That is a very good point from someone who was an excellent Minister. I so enjoyed serving with my hon. Friend. As ever, he shows that his commitment to animal welfare and to the highest standards in farming remains undimmed. We are very lucky to have him in this House.

We all know the Secretary of State is extraordinarily polite. Some people might think the Secretary of State is cultivating the hon. Gentleman for a purpose in the future. I know not what or when—no idea what that might be.

The east of England is a dry region with many houses planned for the future. Dr Robert Evans of the Global Sustainability Institute at Anglia Ruskin University tells us that many of the streams he regularly monitors are already drying up. What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that we have enough water for future houses in the region?

The hon. Gentleman is also a wonderful addition to the House of Commons. I would like to cultivate him. He is a tall poppy in this House and certainly no blushing violet. He makes a very serious point. I have been talking to Anglian Water and others recently. The Environment Agency chief executive, James Bevan, has pointed out that water scarcity is a significant environmental danger. We need to work together to deal with it.

My farmers warmly welcomed the launch of the seasonal agricultural workers scheme today; in fact, James Porter, who was mentioned earlier, is one of my farmers and welcomes the scheme. I will be meeting them next week to see how we can further improve it. Will the Secretary of State agree to continue conversations with the Home Office to ensure that the system can be monitored, increased and made permanent?

Absolutely. Were it not for the advocacy of my hon. Friend and her constituents, we would not have the seasonal agricultural workers scheme in place already, and I pay tribute to her for that work. It is her constituent who has been responsible, working with her, for bringing the scheme in. In stark contrast to the destructive and cynical sniping from the Scottish National party, Scottish Conservatives have been delivering for Scottish farmers.

Can the Secretary of State guarantee that not a penny of the £3.8 billion ring-fenced for agriculture in the proposed new scheme will be spent on schemes that are currently funded from non-CAP sources?

I was going to ask, Mr Speaker—I am going to extend it—whether you are a gardener. If you are, you will understand the value of healthy soil. Does the Secretary of State agree that soil is so important for delivering flooding control and healthy food, and for holding carbon, that we should give it top priority in the Agriculture Bill, call it a public good and pay farmers to deliver it?

Mr Speaker, can I thank you for granting my hon. Friend a long extension? She is absolutely right. Soil is at the heart of the fight against climate change, it is at the heart of good agriculture, and it is absolutely critical for making sure that our environment flourishes.

Does the Secretary of State still believe, as he has told me twice already, that other European countries are looking enviously at the United Kingdom’s attempts to withdraw from the European Union?

Other European countries are looking enviously at the United Kingdom Government and piteously at the Scottish Government, whose contortions on constitutional questions continue to lead other European statesmen to wonder why a great country with so many talented people is in the hands of such a parcel of rogues.

In light of Dieter Helm’s recent comments, how much weight does the Secretary of State give to food security in developing future farming policy?

I have enormous respect for Professor Helm, but food security is absolutely central to my Department’s and this Government’s mission.

Both farmers and consumers are concerned that future trade agreements will lower UK food standards. How will the Secretary of State ensure that future trade agreements maintain and improve our food quality standards?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise that, and I and my hon. Friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will be talking to the NFU and other farming unions later today about how we can make sure that standards are protected.

Church Commissioners

The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—


The Church Commissioners’ rural estate is almost entirely let, predominantly on secure tenancies, which include shooting rights. The Church Commissioners’ ability to influence shooting activities, as long as they are legal and do not breach tenancy terms, is very limited.

Bishop Wood is being used for shooting—land leased by the Church Commissioners to the Forestry Commission. Blood sports in exchange for blood money for the Church of England. What steps have the Church Commissioners taken to ban blood sports across their estate?

I know that the hon. Lady wrote to the Church Commissioners, and they replied to her on 6 March. It is a long-established practice of the Forestry Commission, who are the tenants of the land that she refers to, that they inform people locally when a shoot is to take place, but I can make additional inquiries on her behalf. The Church Commissioners do not have a wide-ranging policy on shooting, because in the majority of cases shooting rates are contained within farm tenancies, many of which are lifetime tenancies.

Mr Speaker, you will know, as I know, that those who lease land from the Churches have a responsibility as lessee to control pests on that land—grey squirrels, foxes, pigeons, crows and so on. Does the right hon. Lady agree that those tenancy agreement terms, and that pest control, have to be enforced?

Without doubt, the hon. Gentleman is right. The Church Commissioners do have a responsibility to ensure that the terms of any tenancy are conformed with. To be perfectly clear about conservation, the Church of England is strongly committed to conservation, especially in its own green spaces. I am sure we all remember the campaigns that were fought to provide a haven for the hedgehog in churchyards, for example, and the Church’s commitment to work with Natural England on bat conservation. Conservation is at our heart.

Archbishops’ Council’s Strategic Development Fund

2. What recent assessment the Commissioners have made of the level of funding for the Archbishops’ Council's strategic development fund. (910099)

The Church Commissioners vote annually on the availability of strategic development funding. The funding is a 10-year programme, and the £270 million of overall funding for the programme that was agreed in 2016 is to be sustained over the period.

Mr Speaker, you will recall from your celebrated visit to Dudley the beautiful sight of Top church, dominating the town’s skyline. I am sure you will want to join me in thanking the Church Commissioners for designating Top church a resourcing church, and for granting £2.5 million to pay for more staff, support for vulnerable people, its work in the deprived community and—together with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund—urgent repairs and much-needed restoration.

May I take the opportunity to say how grateful we are to the brilliant Bishop of Dudley, the Rt Rev. Graham Usher; our Archdeacon, the Venerable Nikki Groarke; the resourcing church leader, the Rev. James Treasure, and of course Maureen Westley, who has been the driving force behind the church for years, and the whole congregation at Top church?

Amen to that, Mr Speaker. I thank the hon. Gentleman. I will take those thanks back to the Church Commissioners. The hon. Gentleman’s question gives me, as Second Church Estates Commissioner, a chance to remind the whole House of the Church Commissioners’ commitment to helping communities, especially some of our poorest communities, to refurbish and regenerate their churches.

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. It is a very important point that the strategic development fund is there not only for the restoration of very fine examples of English architecture, such as Top church in Dudley, but to establish new churches, often in communities where there has been no provision for places of worship. I reassure my hon. Friend. If he has candidates in his constituency, perhaps he would like to place a request through me to the commissioners, if that is what he seeks.

A recent article in The Guardian stated that Scotland’s largest private forestry owner is now the Church of England. There are growing concerns in Scotland about the effects of that type of concentrated land ownership. Can the commissioner shed some light on what assessment the Church made of the impact of that investment decision on local communities?

The investment in forestry was part of the Church of England’s commitment to respond to its ethical investment strategy and move away from investments in, for example, oil sands and companies that may be producing products that do not accord with our commitment to tackle climate change. Investment in forestry obviously is a positive contribution to the climate. As part of the assessment of those investments, we take into consideration the communities that live in the places where we are invested.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission was asked—

Foreign Influence on Elections

It is vital that there is no foreign interference in the UK’s elections, and transparency about who is spending money to influence voters is an essential safeguard. The Electoral Commission monitors party donations and campaign spending to ensure that the laws on foreign influence have not been broken. Where there are specific allegations that the UK’s political finance law has been broken, the commission can investigate, issue civil sanctions and refer cases to the police or the National Crime Agency for criminal investigation.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but from previous questions from my hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock) she will be aware of Russian influence. We know that that influence is happening and has happened. Many of us worry that we are not well enough organised to identify it. When can we get a coalition with GCHQ and security services that will reassure Members that interference, which we know is going on, can be stopped?

My hon. Friend raises an important issue. The Electoral Commission’s regulatory remit is confined in law to UK-based parties and other campaigners. It liaises with the UK Government and security services, working to ensure that our elections are free from foreign interference and to address the issue of threats to our democracy. Those questions might be well addressed to Government Ministers.

The hon. Lady has a unique relationship with the Electoral Commission; I perversely do as well now, and I have fast-track communication with it. I have lots of complaints about the Electoral Commission, but I raise one small thing. Let us try to repair the organisation one step at a time. Can we insist that it dates all its guidance and documents in the bottom left-hand corner, as we do in any other part of Government? Whether it is Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs or Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, there is always a date, but that is not always the case with Electoral Commission documents. Let us please just put that right.

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. I am sure that the issues he has raised this morning will have been heard. I will ensure that the commission responds in full to the issues he has raised.

11. There is clearly a specific issue when it comes to the use of spending on digital campaigning. We now know that almost half of campaigners’ money is being spent on digital and social media platforms. What is the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission doing to ensure that our laws are updated to reflect that current landscape and that people who have power over the electoral system are held to account, transparent and do not create an atmosphere of mistrust? (910108)

This is a growing area of concern. In its recent report on digital campaigning, the Electoral Commission recommended greater transparency on the sources of digital campaign materials and those paying for them and that the commission should be given greater powers to compel information from social media companies.

House of Commons Commission

The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—


4. What steps the Commission is taking to increase the number of apprentices in the House of Commons. (910101)

To increase the number of apprentices, the House service has taken a number of steps. That includes expanding the range of apprenticeship programmes on offer from two to 14 since September 2018 and upskilling existing employees by enrolling them on apprenticeship programmes. The expansion of apprenticeship programmes will continue. Ongoing engagement and planning for apprenticeship roles across all House teams will ensure more quality apprenticeships are created.

Mr Speaker, you have led the way in ensuring that young people are employed in the House in your scheme, and in supporting apprenticeships, but as we are the House of Commons and the Houses of Parliament, can we please set an example to our nation and not just coast along in terms of employment of apprentices and make sure we meet our 2.3% public target? I urge you, Mr Speaker, and the senior Clerk to rocket-boost apprenticeships so that we have hundreds of apprentices in the Houses of Parliament.

I commend the right hon. Gentleman for his work to raise the profile of apprenticeships in the House. He will know that the House intends to increase the number of apprentices from 14 to 38 by the end of May. He will also be aware that that does not hit the 2.3% target, which the House intends to do by 2021.

What rates are House of Commons apprentices paid? The Government’s minimum rate is £3.70 per hour for under-19s and those over 19 in their first year. I would be interested to know how much apprentices in the House, who do a very important job, are paid. Would it not set an example to give them a much higher rate so that the rest of the country could do so as well?

I am afraid that my briefing on the subject has no information on that, so I will write to the hon. Lady to confirm the rate. Hopefully she will be satisfied with the rate House apprentices receive.

And if the hon. Lady is not satisfied, we might have to look at it again, preferably sooner rather than later.

May I press the right hon. Gentleman on the regional and national diversity of apprentices? We are a UK House of Commons and House of Parliament. It would therefore be good if apprentices from across the UK feel that they can access the schemes. We should also ensure that we are more diverse by ensuring that we have more women apprentices—they can become Clerk of the House or serve as head of security. Diversity is extremely important. We cannot just preach it; we must also practise it.

I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. He may be aware that the House works with Amazing Apprenticeships, an organisation that goes out nationally to 3,500 schools and colleges. Among other things, it is creating a short film about what happens in the House, which I hope has a positive impact on his diversity concerns.

Church Commissioners

The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Church Land and Buildings: Digital Connectivity

5. What progress has been made on implementing the joint accord between the Government and the Church of England on the use of Church land and buildings to support digital connectivity. (910102)

6. What recent discussions the Church of England has had with the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport on using church spires to facilitate the provision of broadband in rural areas. (910103)

It gives me very special pleasure to respond to my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray) because it allows me to extend to her my very best wishes for her wedding on Saturday. I am sure the House joins me in that.

The Church of England is working with stakeholders to produce guidance for churches to be published in May. The guidance should assist churches in making the best use of the joint accord between the Government and the Church to support digital connectivity. Two hundred churches have taken up the opportunity of the new technology, adding to the existing 300 that had already done so.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her good wishes. Is she aware of any specific problems that discourage parishes from taking up the opportunity to improve connectivity in rural areas such as South East Cornwall, and at the same time increasing parish income? If so, can the Government do anything to help?

It is largely about awareness or perceived barriers—some people think it is impossible to be a candidate, but I reassure my hon. Friend that it is perfectly possible to install digital technology infrastructure even in listed buildings. I encourage her to raise awareness locally. Two churches in the Truro diocese were granted facility in 2017, but two is not many in the whole diocese. Anything that can be done to encourage other churches to look at the opportunity to improve broadband coverage in their area would be gratefully received.

It is a pleasure to be coupled with my hon. Friend the Member for South East Cornwall (Mrs Murray). I wish her the very best in her coupling this weekend—a proper Cornish wedding in Westminster.

After discussions with the Church Commissioners officer, I am aware that there are no reasons why church spires cannot be used for boosting broadband signals in rural areas. I recently had a good meeting with Cornwall Broadband, a local provider, which would like to open a dialogue with the churches in Cornwall to utilise their spires. Would the Church Commissioners be interested in that dialogue, and what advice can the right hon. Lady offer to facilitate those discussions?

The Church Commissioners would be interested, but the initiative comes very much from the diocese; I encourage them to make contact through the diocesan office. Some diocese have progressed faster with this opportunity, particularly in East Anglia—almost 300 churches in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex alone have installed this digital technology, for example. One of the key barriers is not knowing where the notspots for mobile and broadband signals are. All colleagues can get involved: if there is a tall church building in the vicinity of a notspot, perhaps this technology is for them.

House of Commons Commission

The right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—

Plymouth Gin: Mayflower Commemorations

The House of Commons catering service does not currently stock Plymouth Gin, but will seek to stock some for the Mayflower 400 commemorations.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that answer, which will warm the spirits of people in Plymouth. Plymouth Gin is a fantastic gin, and Mayflower 400, which marks the 400th anniversary of the sailing of the Mayflower from Plymouth to America, is a great opportunity. In these tough times, may I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that we look not only at the standard-strength gin, but Plymouth Gin’s Navy strength as well? We could all do with a little bit extra in these tough times.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that. He may be aware of moves within the House to look at the availability of alcohol in this place; I am not sure whether the House will want to entertain the idea of double or triple-strength gins. However, he has put his point on the record and I will take it back to the catering services, including whether they want to stock the double or triple-strength gin that he proposes.

As the House authorities are aware, wholesalers have a monopoly, particularly when it comes to putting beer into Strangers Bar. Red Squirrel Brewery, which is in my constituency, managed to get it in there after five years, but only after having to go through the wholesaler designated by the House. The margins made it almost unprofitable for it to put the beer in there. That is wrong: there should not be a monopoly in this House.

I say to those observing our proceedings that that interesting inquiry does relate to alcohol, but not to gin. It is a sort of side observation from the right hon. Gentleman, borne of his personal experience, for which we are grateful.

I assume that it is in order for me to respond very briefly, Mr Speaker. Clearly, the right hon. Gentleman has put on the record his concerns about how the process works, but he will also be aware that Members do at least, through the guest beer option, have the possibility of bringing their own specialist beers to the House.

Church Commissioners

The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Ordination of Women: Priesthood

8. What steps the Church of England is taking to mark the 25th anniversary of women’s ordination to the priesthood. (910105)

There are a number of significant anniversaries this year. It is the 25th anniversary of women’s ordination as priests, the 50th anniversary of women being made readers and the fifth anniversary of women being consecrated as bishops. The Archbishop of Canterbury has held a special service at Lambeth Palace to celebrate the anniversary, and events have also been taking place in diocese.

Throughout 2018, celebrations were rightly held in honour of the centenary of the women’s vote. What plans does the commission have to carry on in that vein for the 25th anniversary of women’s ordination to the priesthood?

Our plans are to pursue our determination to encourage more women into the priesthood. For the record, I share with the House the fact that the number of female clergy is now at a record high: women now make up nearly a third of the 20,000 active clergy. More importantly, there are those in the pipeline: more than half those entering training for the priesthood in 2018 were women.

Electoral Commission Committee

The hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South, representing the Speaker’s Committee on the Electoral Commission was asked—

Vote Leave

The commission found Vote Leave guilty of multiple breaches under electoral law and imposed fines of £61,000 in July 2018. Vote Leave made representations to the commission in June 2018, when it was notified of the commission’s proposals for penalties. The commission considered these representations carefully, in accordance with its published enforcement policy, before deciding on the penalties to be imposed. Vote Leave took up its right of appeal to the county court, and the appeal is listed for July 2019.

The Leave campaign was found guilty of sending almost 200,000 unsolicited texts to numbers it had harvested from a football competition with odds of 5 million, million, billion to one. Anyone who is good at trillions can tell me at the end. In view of the threatened economic damage from Brexit, does the hon. Lady really think that a fine of £40,000 is enough to put others off?

The Electoral Commission works closely with the Information Commissioner and others in making sure that our rules are followed, but the Electoral Commission, in terms of its responsibilities, continues to urge the Government to introduce legislation to strengthen its sanctioning powers for future referendums and elections. Its view is that the current maximum fine of £20,000 per offence could well be seen as the cost of doing business.

Church Commissioners

The right hon. Member for Meriden, representing the Church Commissioners, was asked—

Easter Church Attendance

10. What plans the Church of England has to encourage more families to attend church this Easter. (910107)

Parish churches will be welcoming parents and families especially back to church this weekend for Mothering Sunday. What better year to record with grateful thanks all of those involved in making it possible for mothers to have their names on marriage certificates? Even though Mothering Sunday takes place during Lent, it is a feast day. In preparation for Lent, the Church has developed a free Lent pilgrim app and emails, and the campaign material is also available on Alexa.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her answer. As she knows, Easter is a special time for us Christians as it represents the absolute core of our faith. There is something unique and special about spending it in church, so can she outline what work the Church of England is doing to reach out via social media and the internet to families who may not normally be church attenders to come and share that special joy with us?

The Church has been winning awards for the range of innovative resources it uses to develop support for local churches and encourage their communities to use them. For example, there is, a finder website that has more than 10 million visitors a year and has seen a big increase in the number of people using the site and spending time on it.

Hard copies of the Church’s materials are also available. Should the rigours of Brexit be too much, it is not too late for Members to avail themselves of the “Pilgrim Journeys” book of daily readings to get us through to Easter.

Supporting Disabled People to Work

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions if she will make a statement on the National Audit Office’s report “Supporting disabled people to work”.

The Department welcomes the National Audit Office report, which acknowledges the Department’s work to build our evidence base and deliver tailored support through jobcentres with partnership working, including healthcare services that deliver for disabled people. Between 2013 and 2018, disability employment has risen by 930,000, but there is more to do to deliver on our commitment set out in the “Improving Lives” paper. As the Secretary of State announced earlier this month, we will review our goal of 1 million more disabled people in work by 2027 to see if it can be made even more ambitious.

We know that personalised, tailored support and tackling the misconceptions and the barriers that people may face are effective in getting disabled people into work. Our initiatives give claimants the opportunity to access personalised support to help them to move closer to work and to help to achieve cultural change, including through our Disability Confident scheme, supporting employers to provide job opportunities. Since the “Improving Lives” paper was published in 2017, the Department has launched the Work and Health programme, which will support some 220,000 disabled people, and the intensive personalised employment support programme, which will start at the end of this year. Access to Work supported some 33,860 people last year, up 13% to a record high, and more than 11,000 employers have signed up to the Disability Confident campaign.

The Department routinely evaluates its labour market programmes and ensures that the evidence is used to provide the most effective interventions that help people move closer to the labour market. We will continue to build our evidence base by testing a range of initiatives and using this evidence to inform our future strategy. With universal credit, that is transforming the labour market prospects of disabled people, not only through earlier and more intense engagement, but by allowing them to move into and out of work without the fear of losing their benefits or having a new health assessment. This year, we will also introduce new disability employment adviser leader roles to support work coaches to build their skills and capabilities.

In conclusion, stakeholders will be at the heart of our future work. Together we will continue to do all we can to unlock disabled people’s potential.

Mr Speaker, may I start by thanking you for granting today’s urgent question?

Today, the National Audit Office published a damning report evaluating the Government’s progress in supporting disabled people into employment. The NAO concluded that, two years into the Government’s work, health and disability strategy, the Department for Work and Pensions lacks any clear measures or implementation plan to promote the employment of disabled people.

The report found that the number of disabled people out of work has remained stagnant—at 3.7 million—for the last five years, highlighting that the increase in the number of disabled people has not been matched by a decrease in the number who are out of work. The report also found that the Government have yet to evaluate the effectiveness of their employment support programme. Indeed, the head of the NAO has said that the Government

“has yet to make a significant dent”

in the number of disabled people out of work. The disability employment gap has stayed at a little above 30% for the last two years. Recently, the Secretary of State announced “a more ambitious plan” to increase the employment target beyond 1 million in the next 10 years. Given the NAO’s conclusions today, how does she expect to deliver that?

The NAO also found that the case load of work coaches is set to double as a result of universal credit. How will the Minister ensure that disabled people do not receive a worse service, and what additional resources will be made available, aside from just disability employment leads?

We all know that the Access to Work scheme is effective, but many employers are unaware of it. Will the Minister commit to expand the scheme and to remove the current cap? The Government’s Disability Confident scheme lacks any credible performance measures to ensure that disabled people get the right support, as well as any quality standards or independent evaluation. Will the Government now commit to getting the scheme independently evaluated? Will they also start to record the number of disabled people who are in work as a result of it?

Finally, it has been two weeks since there was a Minister for Disabled People. When will one be appointed?

The NAO report did welcome our approach to offering tailored and personalised support. We know from speaking to disabled people of all ages that that is something they very much welcome. All of us in society have our own unique challenges and opportunities as we navigate through life and particularly as we seek work. From the many visits I made during my time as the Minister for Disabled People, I know just how powerful the case is for doing everything we can to help disabled people into work, and particularly young disabled people, who want to have exactly the same opportunities as their peers.

The NAO report also welcomed our test-and-learn approach. There is no global, off-the-shelf book that says exactly how we can help every single individual. We have to develop new, innovative ways, and that was welcomed, as was our commitment to continue partnership working, particularly to support local, excellent initiatives that help to unlock people’s potential.

I do not recognise much of what the shadow Minister said, because there are 930,000 more disabled people in work over the last five years. This is real people having the opportunity to work; these are record numbers. Over 400,000 workless disabled people a year move into work. That is a welcome figure. However, we recognise that more needs to be done, which is why the Secretary of State was passionate about saying that we will review that target of 1 million more by 2027, and I will support that.

We are focusing our efforts on personalised and tailored support. We are increasing the number of disability advisers and their training. The personalised support package will unlock local initiatives. The work and health programme is helping 220,000 disabled people. We are doing joined-up working with the Department of Health and Social Care. Our proactive work supporting employers has also helped. I recognise the point about raising awareness of Access to Work, and we do need to do more on that, but we had a record number of people last year—up 13%. The cap has gone from 1.5 times average earnings to twice that amount, at about £57,900. I welcome the cultural change among employers who recognise that, with just a few small changes, it can be a win-win situation. I felt that as an employer, and a number of times when I engaged with businesses of all sizes. Those businesses benefit, as do disabled people, and we will continue to do all we can.

I strongly welcome what my hon. Friend has said. My constituent, Lacey-Rose Saamanthy, a Harlow resident, is deaf and she was recently offered a role at Broomfield Hospital as a catering assistant. However, her offer of employment email did not make it clear that that offer was conditional on a risk assessment, and it was subsequently retracted. To me, that is outrageous. The risk assessment identified a number of risks that Ms Saamanthy believes could easily have been mitigated. Will the Minister explain the role that disabled employees can play in the workplace, and help stop such outrageous discrimination against a deaf person who was offered a job but who then had that offer rescinded?

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend’s work in supporting what I and my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) have done to introduce disability apprenticeships. He mentions a terrible case, and disability employment advisers can help to provide constructive advice to employers—particularly small employers that do not have HR departments—and give them confidence to ensure that all people, regardless of their disability, can contribute to those employers.

Although I have enjoyed our debates on this subject over the years, the Minister knows that it should not be him at the Dispatch Box but a new, dedicated disability Minister. The fact that the Prime Minister has not even bothered to replace the Minister for Disabled People after nearly two weeks is a shameful indictment of a Tory Government who have collapsed into crisis and chaos. They are so consumed by their Brexit folly that they are completely ignoring the day job. That is costing the country dearly, and it adds insult to injury for those disabled people who have been left unrepresented and impoverished by Tory policies.

We should not be surprised by the NAO report. Will the Minister explain why his party dropped its ambitious policy at the last election to halve the disability employment gap? We see in the NAO report that the Government’s new watered-down goal of having 1 million more disabled people in work cannot be used to measure the success of those efforts—even the Department for Work and Pensions acknowledges that. What is the Minister’s assessment of the NAO’s conclusion that his Department has no idea of what works when it comes to disability employment support? Why have all the schemes to support disability employment been underspent?

Finally, the NAO report does not cover the interaction between disabled people and the benefit system. Does the Minister see that cutting disability benefit support—as this Government have done with employment and support allowance and universal credit—while not having a clue about what impact their employment programmes are having, is the height of irresponsibility, and a neglect of the needs of disabled people?

I reassure the hon. Gentleman that I am happy to be here answering this urgent question, and I am passionate about this role. As I said, my work in this area, both as a former Minister for Disabled People and today, is particularly guided by meeting young disabled people and their families, and there is a passion and determination for them to have the same opportunities as others. In some cases that involves full-time work; other times it can be as little as one hour a month, but for some people that is life changing, and the Government are committed to that. It is right that the Secretary of State reviews our ambitious target of an extra 1 million disabled people in work, and it is the actual number that counts. Every one of those 930,000 disabled people involved with this scheme in the past five years now has the opportunities that so many others take for granted.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the sign-up rates of various different packages, but I gently remind him that they are voluntary—we do not want to mandate anything. That said, however, through the personalised support package there is the opportunity to look for local initiatives. All our constituencies have examples of best practice, and through the personalised support of the individual work coach, we can unlock access to those initiatives, linking them to local employers and giving people—particularly those who have been away from the jobs market for a long time—the very best chance. As I said, I have seen the joy of individuals who work for as little as one hour a month, and what a difference that makes to their life.

I know that you, Mr Speaker, regard the report by the all-party group on acquired brain injury, “Time for Change”, as required reading. I hope the Minister will, too. It sets out how hundreds of thousands of Britons across all our constituencies are affected by head injuries, with physiological and psychological effects. Neurorehabilitation can help those people to recover and lead purposeful, meaningful and fulfilled lives, but I have to say that that requires Government Departments working together to bring these hidden disabilities to light and to give people new chances and new lives.

I thank my right hon. Friend. This is a very, very important issue. I know that the former Minister met stakeholders, as have I. My right hon. Friend has been a real champion in raising, in particular, hidden disabilities and long-term health conditions. It is absolutely right that we have joined-up working, which is why we are working so closely with the Department of Health and Social Care through the joint Health and Work Unit. Many claimants need a combination of support to unlock their full potential.

The disability employment gap fell steadily in the years up to 2010. It has since got stuck at a level just above 30%. David Cameron, in the 2015 election campaign, promised to halve it by 2020, a pledge that was quickly abandoned after the 2015 election. What does the Minister now believe will happen to the disability employment gap over the next five years?

The right hon. Gentleman is one of the most constructive and proactive Members of the Opposition pushing on this very important area. When we came to office, disability employment stood at 44.1%. It has now gone to 51.5%. That is up 7.4%, with the gap closing by 3.6%. I expect that trend to continue over the next five years.

I was very pleased to sign up my constituency office to the Disability Confident scheme, because I know, as a former employer in a small business, that there are practical and awareness barriers. Will the Minister update the House on some of the practical measures he is implementing to help employers employ disabled people who really want to work?

I thank my hon. Friend for showing real, tangible commitment to supporting this and to creating new opportunities for disabled people. The Government rightly have to lead on this, but we also need employers to be proactive offering work experience, interviews and, ultimately, jobs. The key message we give to employers is that it will benefit them. We have huge skill gaps in this country and often with just very small changes they can benefit. I am not just preaching as a Minister, but as somebody who ran my own business for 10 years and benefited from making very small changes to get some excellent new members of staff. We will continue to work and to give as much advice and support to businesses as we can.

Labour Members fought very hard in this Chamber to keep the Remploy jobs going. I had a Remploy factory in my constituency, which was a lifeline to so many people. I am sure the Minister has the best intentions, but I have heard these platitudes before. Can the Minister tell us how many Remploy people who lost their jobs are now in work?

I will have to write to the right hon. Lady to give her the exact figures, but the principle we have to look at is giving individuals who are more than two years away from the jobs market, real and intense support to help them get there. At the moment, the best route is through the specialist employment support. Last year, we had 1,520 starts, of which 600 people were able to get at least a placement for 13 weeks, leading to permanent jobs. We need to continue to do everything we can on personalised support and linking up with local employment opportunities.

As a former disabilities Minister—I had other roles within the Department as well; it was not just disabilities, but that was the lead issue—I say to those on the Front Bench, and I hope the Prime Minister is listening, that we should have a Minister for this role as soon as possible. I do not understand why that has not taken place.

Disability Confident is a great success. As parliamentarians, we can push it forward in our own constituencies, as we have in my constituency of Hemel Hempstead, so that people have the confidence to get into work and employers can employ the right people.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely spot on. We can help to raise the awareness of Disability Confident. We can do our own Disability Confident events, and we can write to employers to encourage them to sign up and to work with local organisations that support disabled people to find job opportunities. It should be a real priority for all of us.

The National Audit Office makes it clear that there is no evidence that the £386 million spent on Disability Confident has resulted in a single disabled person getting into work. Would it not be better to devolve that resource and extra responsibilities for employment programmes to local and regional government—such as in Southwark, where we have a Labour council committed to becoming a full employment borough—to allow them to innovate to get more disabled people into work?

To be fair, I think the figures speak for themselves: 930,000 people in the last five years have gained—[Interruption.] However, I accept the thrust of the point about looking at local solutions and empowering local communities, because they know their job market and where the skills gaps are. I accept that principle. We are moving in that direction through the personalised support package so that work coaches can look at local initiatives. There is a lot more work in that area. I very much welcome that question.

One of my constituents who is disabled has written to me, suggesting that this Government are putting less into disability benefits than previous Governments, and my constituent is very concerned that there could be an impact from Brexit. Will my hon. Friend confirm that there is more money going into disability benefits and that the Government will continue to support those with disabilities, no matter what happens regarding Brexit?

Our support for people with disability benefits is now at £55 billion, up £10 billion in real terms since 2010. That is a record high. The amount that we are spending on employment support for those with disabilities is showing a real-terms increase following the spending review and will continue to do so.

I hope that the Minister would agree that this is a bit of a wake-up call, but what the Government have been doing is not all bad and I welcome some of the moves that are happening. As chair of the Westminster Commission on Autism, may I offer more of a partnership? The neuro-diverse community and people on the autism spectrum are differently abled. We have some wonderful organisations such as AchieveAbility and Genius Within that are going out looking for people who are a bit quirky in their thinking, who think differently. The gig economy and some of the techy areas are looking for these people. They are very valuable assets and we need to encourage them. Will the Minister meet some of these people, whom I can introduce him to?