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House of Commons Hansard
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Commons Chamber
09 May 2019
Volume 659

House of Commons

Thursday 9 May 2019

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

The Secretary of State was asked—

Village Halls

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1. What steps he is taking to regenerate village halls in rural communities. [910775]

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Village halls are at the heart of rural communities, and we want to ensure that they remain so for many years to come. That is why, on 5 April this year, the Government launched a £3 million fund to improve them. Grants of up to £75,000, or 20% of the project costs, are available for the refurbishment and alteration of these essential community buildings.

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Village halls are a vital asset in many rural parts of my constituency, offering a wide range of activities for groups of people of all ages. I know that from personal experience, having served as chair of my local village hall in Shuttington for several years before my election. I welcome the fund, but how are village hall committees being encouraged to apply for it, given that they are often run by a large number of dedicated volunteers?

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We have publicised the grant scheme on social media and fundraising community websites, and there have been more than 70 expressions of interest. The National Association of Local Councils has been informed, and I am sure that it will use its networks to advertise the scheme. I should point out that the deadline for applications is March 2020. The funds may already have been allocated by then, so we want to encourage as many village halls as possible to get on with their project proposals.

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Bassetlaw will be happy to pioneer the green energy policy in village halls, along with the Secretary of State and the Government. We offer all our village halls to the Government, so that, with Government funds, they can work together to become carbon-neutral, and villages can see the benefits—

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This is very interesting, but what is the question?

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The question, Mr Speaker, is this. Does the Minister agree that such a partnership would be in the national interest?

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The Government have already done that extensively in village halls, but I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Energy and Clean Growth will be delighted to take an interest in any proposals that the hon. Gentleman puts to her.

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Although small, the village of Rushton in my constituency has a church, a pub, a village hall and a village newsletter. Village halls are extremely important. Will the Minister take this opportunity to praise all the volunteers who seek no reward, save to serve their local communities?

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I certainly will. I am sure that in some of the villages in Buckingham tonight, the villagers will be gathering in their rural communities to watch Arsenal—hopefully—beat Valencia, just as they will have watched Spurs win last night and the mighty Liverpool win on Tuesday. Village halls are places where communities come together for moments of joy, but also for other important purposes such as community activities, and our villages would be poorer without them.

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I welcome the fund, but may I ask the Minister to look again at the eligibility criterion that forbids parish councils from bidding for it? In villages such as Rainford, Billinge and Seneley Green in my constituency, halls run by parish councils are real community hubs, and they would be good umbrella bodies to bid for the money on behalf of their communities.

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I will certainly look at that again. I understand that village halls are usually run by separate entities, so I am not sure why there is a barrier to grant applications in the villages that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned.

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Hundreds of farmers are being treated for mental health issues. What plans have been made to ensure that village halls have a signpost to mental health help for rural communities?

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Village halls are used for a variety of purposes, including the provision of health services, which are also available in the voluntary sector. I commend the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion on how we can continue to use village halls to support farmers locally.

Farm Workforce

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2. What steps he is taking to ensure that farmers have access to the workforce that they need during the harvest. [910776]

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DEFRA is working closely with the Home Office on the future immigration framework as part of the longer-term strategy for labour in the food chain. The seasonal workers pilot is now open, and the first workers have arrived on UK farms.

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Eddisbury is the home of high-quality dairy farming and produces much of the country’s milk. However, dairy farmers in Cheshire are having huge problems with staff recruitment. What steps is the Department taking to ensure that the £30,000 annual earnings threshold for migrant workers post Brexit will not apply to farm workers?

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As I have said, DEFRA is working closely with the Home Office on this issue. The Government are committed to ensuring that a wide range of stakeholders have an opportunity to contribute their views and shape the development of the future immigration policy. That is why the Government have embarked on an extensive programme of targeted engagement with businesses and other stakeholders across the UK.

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In evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee, Archie Gibson of Agrico UK said that if Scottish farmers cannot get the seasonal workers they need to replace EU workers no longer able to come here, two fifths of farmers will cease the enterprise that needs that workforce; furthermore, three fifths will have to downsize. We all here, as the hon. Member for Eddisbury (Antoinette Sandbach) pointed out, have to make the not unfounded assumption that the same is true for the rest of the UK’s farmers and growers. Therefore, will the Secretary of State make urgent representations to his Cabinet colleagues that our farmers need migrant workers? They need a ready supply—not a short-term pilot, but certainty of policy that will not leave crops rotting in the ground again.

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May I correct the hon. Gentleman? He says EU workers will not be able to come here; under whichever scenario we leave the EU, that will not be the case. Those who are already here will be able to stay. During the implementation period, people will be able to live, work and study as now, and there is a registration scheme. In a no-deal scenario, European economic area citizens will be able to live and work here without a visa for three months and then continue to stay by applying for European temporary leave to remain, which gives them 36 additional months.

Leaving the EU: Farming Policy

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3. What plans he has for farming policy after the UK leaves the EU. [910777]

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The Agriculture Bill lays the foundations for farming policy in England as we leave the EU. This new policy will be a system that pays public money for public goods, rewarding farmers for delivering environmental and animal welfare benefits. The protection of our countryside will allow us to leave the environment in a better state than when we found it while we support farmers to produce high-quality food in a sustainable way.

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I thank the Minister for that answer, but within that does he see soil health as a public good on its own terms or merely as a proxy or gateway for other benefits such as biodiversity, flood management—so important on the Somerset levels—and food productivity?

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Having studied soil science at university, I understand that soil is one of our greatest assets, and indeed the numerous environmental benefits and services that can be derived from activities that enhance soil health will be eligible for public money.

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I am glad that the Minister has had a change of heart on that because he argued against my amendment on soil during the Bill Committee, but now he is on the Front Bench. What are we doing to try to meet net zero emissions from farming either through the Agriculture Bill or other mechanisms? The Committee on Climate Change again endorsed that this week. What are the Government doing and when is the target going to be reached?

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The hon. Lady makes a good point and, indeed, emissions from agriculture have fallen by about 16% since 1990. However, progress has stalled in recent years, with little change since 2009, and I know from the work we did together on the Environmental Audit Committee that we need to make further progress on that, particularly by looking at methane, which has a briefer half-life than other greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and so needs to be dealt with in a slightly different way.

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As we know, the potential of leaving the EU is creating some uncertainty so can the Minister reassure Cheshire farmers and the National Farmers Union that the current funding schemes that their members are working with will not be phased out until replacements are available to ensure that there will not be any loss of funding during any period of transition?

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We have made the decision clear with regard to the 2019 and 2020 schemes, and I remind farmers that the deadline for applications this year is 15 May as usual. I hope that they will get their applications in; sadly, in most years, we get a lot of applications in the last 24 hours.

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NFU Scotland and other farming organisations north of the border are increasingly concerned at the lack of agreement between the UK Government and the Scottish Government to allow a Scottish schedule into the Agriculture Bill. Will the Minister meet me and a cross-party delegation, including the NFU and crofters organisations, to hear from them what the industry would want in that schedule?

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I would certainly be happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman. I was in Aberdeenshire recently and met representatives of the Scottish farming unions, and last week I met Roseanna Cunningham from the Scottish Administration and discussed a number of issues.

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But where is the Agriculture Bill? It left Committee months and months ago, and given that we are spending an infinite amount of time on statutory instruments updating what the EU Commission is now doing, can we be assured that we will not have to completely rewrite the Bill— although that could be useful in this time of climate change? We just need the Bill back so that farmers can have some certainty.

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I am as keen as the hon. Gentleman is to make progress. Perhaps the shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Workington (Sue Hayman), will be able to help, because as soon as we can clear the logjam and get Brexit out of the way, we will be able to get on with it. She is part of the team that is negotiating an accommodation between the two main parties, so perhaps she can help us to make some progress on Brexit so that we can get on with the Agriculture and Fisheries Bills.

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I must say to the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) that I have received two approaches about him this week. First, I received a letter earlier this week in my office telling me what I already knew—namely, that he was a splendid fellow—and then I was at a book launch last night, when somebody beetled up to me to tell me that she was a constituent of his and that he was a splendid fellow. I do not know whether this is an orchestrated campaign, but I require no persuasion on this matter.

Environmental Education

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4. What steps his Department is taking to promote awareness of the environment and food production among young people. [910779]

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Young people are at the heart of this year’s Year of Green Action. We are working with the Department for Education on the £10 million flagship children and nature programme, which supports children from disadvantaged backgrounds to give them better access to the natural environment. We work closely with the DFE to promote awareness of pathways into food and farming careers.

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I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. One of my constituents, Tom Martin, has set up a fantastic initiative called FaceTime a Farmer, which enables pupils to engage with agricultural and rural issues in the classroom via a video link with farmers out in their fields. Will the Minister join me in congratulating Tom on spearheading this brilliant initiative, and would he be interested in a meeting to learn more about it?

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I would certainly like to thank Mr Martin and farmers like him for all the hard work they put into such initiatives. FaceTime a Farmer is an exciting initiative to help children to engage with farming and get a better understanding of where their food comes from, and I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and Mr Martin.

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Will the Minister pass on my congratulations to the Secretary of State on his decision to meet young people to talk about climate change? Unfortunately, the meeting this week had to be postponed for fully understandable reasons. Lola Chirico and 14 others were disappointed not to be able to meet the Secretary of State, because they want to talk about climate change with him. Lola Chirico is my granddaughter.

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Ah! What a heartwarming tale!

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The Secretary of State is sitting here, so I do not need to pass that on. It is certainly important that young people are leading the way, and I think that many of us are perhaps slightly embarrassed that we have been so slow off the mark. Going back to what my hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Tom Pursglove) said, it is important that young people should be aware of how their food is produced and where it comes from and of the seasonality in this country so that they can understand when different foods are in season. If they buy foods that are in season, they will be able to reduce the carbon footprint of the food they purchase.

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With an increase in the urbanised society and media, I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree that the education of our young across all parts of our communities is very important. Against that backdrop, will he welcome and add whatever support he can give to Open Farm Sunday, which is a golden opportunity for young people to see agriculture in tooth and claw?

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Having attended a number of Open Farm Sunday events in my constituency, I can commend it and I hope that more farmers will contribute to it so that more young people, particularly those from urban areas who do not understand agriculture and the hard work that goes into producing the food they consume, can attend those events. Perhaps not so much food would be wasted if people understood how much hard work was put into producing it.

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Palm oil is an essential component of much of our food production, but unsustainable palm oil production across south-east Asia is wrecking a lot of natural forests. Will the Government join me in congratulating Chester Zoo on its sustainable palm oil campaign? What support can they give to that campaign?

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The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), who is sitting next to me, is visiting that tomorrow, and we are all certainly aware of the environmental impact of palm oil. There is a perfectly good alternative, in the form of British rapeseed oil, which is produced in places such as Yorkshire and East Anglia.

Leaving the EU: Welsh Seafood

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5. What discussions he has had with the Welsh Government on the potential effect of the UK leaving the EU on the Welsh seafood industry. [910780]

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Ministers from across the four Administrations in the United Kingdom meet monthly at the inter-ministerial group for environment, food and rural affairs to discuss the negotiations with the EU. The most recent meeting was on 29 April in Cardiff, and we will continue to work together to secure the long-term profitability of the Welsh fishing industry as we leave the EU.

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Fishing vessels at Porth Dinllaen and coastal communities around Wales land a whelk catch worth £6.2 million every year. Have the Welsh Government made any specific representations to Ministers to ensure that our fishermen do not face tariffs of 20% on exports to the crucial South Korean market after Brexit? Will he meet with me to discuss the importance of the seafood industry to Wales’s coastal economy?

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I completely appreciate the vital importance of ensuring that the trade in whelks between Wales and South Korea is protected. One of the reasons why the Department for International Trade has prioritised making sure that we have continuity trade arrangements with South Korea is to ensure that Korean consumers can continue to enjoy this great Welsh product. The one threat to that trade would be the election of a Labour Government at the next general election because, as we all know, the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) could not run a whelk stall.

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I think that one probably requires a little bit of work and finesse, but it is only a matter of time. That was a first draft.

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Welsh fishermen will be particularly interested in the application of the Hague preference since the ability to invoke it and, more importantly, counter-invoke it against the Irish Republic is critical to our interests. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the withdrawal agreement will protect our ability to invoke the Hague preference, because he will understand that it is not part of the common fisheries policy but a political convention that needs to be invoked each year?

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My hon. Friend makes an important point. We will be able to continue to invoke the Hague preference in certain circumstances, and it is vital that we do so in defence of our interests.

Waste Incineration

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6. What assessment he has made of the potential merits of a moratorium on new waste incineration plants to promote recycling. [910782]

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It is important to do whatever we can to recycle as much waste as possible, but waste incineration plants continue to play an important role in generating energy instead of diverting waste to landfill. However, our assessment is that additional residual waste energy capacity above that already planned to 2020 should not be needed if we achieve our recycling targets.

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Further to that welcome reply, has the Minister seen the recent report from independent consultants Eunomia? It indicates that we will indeed have enough waste incineration capacity to deal with our country’s residual waste and that if we build more incinerators, the danger is that waste will be diverted from recycling.

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I have not seen that report, but the hon. Gentleman will be aware that we discussed this matter in his recent Westminster Hall debate. It is important to say that we are still making progress to ensure that we achieve our recycling targets, but incineration by default is certainly not the answer that we want to promote.

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As the fast fashion trend continues to increase, will the Minister outline both the short-term and long-term plans to tackle the hundreds of thousands of tonnes of clothing that is incinerated every year?

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There is definitely a market for trying to extract fibres from textiles. We are considering extending the extended producer responsibility to textiles, but the policy is still under consideration.

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The Minister will know that Wales recycles more than any other part of the UK, with ambitious targets and a new £6 million fund to help businesses become plastic free. Should the Government not learn from Wales, given that they are flatlining on their own targets?

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We do, and I commend the Welsh Government on that policy deployment. We are consulting on certain measures to try to increase recycling, and the consultation closes next week.

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As the Minister knows, the level of recycling in England rose from around 7% in 1997 to around 44% in 2011, but it has flatlined since then. Much of the incentive for the increase in recycling during those years came from avoiding the landfill tax, and Government capital grants for increasing recycling were balanced by landfill tax receipts. However, now that most household waste is incinerated, those incentives no longer apply. The “Our waste, our resources” strategy states:

“Should wider policies not deliver the Government’s waste ambitions in the long-term, we will consider the introduction of a tax on the incineration”.

Will the Minister tell us how many more years of flatlining it will take before she is willing to make that consideration?

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The landfill tax has been important in reducing landfill. As I have just said, we are consulting on measures that build on the resources and waste strategy that we published a few months ago. We have been quite clear that we must ensure that we increase recycling, and we will take further measures if incineration is still proving part of the problem.

Farm Subsidy Payments

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7. What steps his Department is taking to speed up subsidy payments to farmers. [910783]

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We have delivered significant improvements to the basic payments scheme in England this year, with 99.7% of the 2018 payments now complete. I am, however, acutely aware that we have much more to do to deliver the stewardship schemes to the same high standards.

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My constituency borders rural communities in Cheshire and Shropshire, and I know there is immense concern in the farming community on this point. In view of the pretty damning report in 2017 from the Public Accounts Committee and the fact that a third of all UK farmers are now aged 65 or over, will the Government act and do something urgently?

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The hon. Lady makes a valid point and I do not underestimate the importance of getting this right. That is one of the reasons why we took responsibility for these stewardship schemes away from Natural England and gave it to the Rural Payments Agency, which is performing much better. But we do need to do better, not least because, if we want to incentivise more farmers to participate in these schemes, we need to make sure that we keep our part of the bargain and give them the money they deserve.

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Not only is it a problem with stewardship schemes that existing farmers are not getting paid, but many farmers are deciding not to go into those stewardship schemes. The whole of our new agricultural policy will be going in that direction, so it is vital that the Minister now sorts it out. You have had some time—not the Minister personally—and it is time the Department sorted it out.

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Point taken. On my own farm I have just planted wild bird seed and a big area of nectar plants, so I will report to the House when my payments come through, although I have insisted to officials that I should be in the last decile of payments—I do not want them to accelerate my payments. I will be one of the last to get paid, so I will keep a careful eye on this matter.

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What regime is planned for soil quality? When are we likely to get it? It is so important for carbon retention.

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As I mentioned, many of the public goods we are to deliver will result in better soil quality. We also need to have a debate on the role of livestock on mixed farms because many of the farms I have visited recently on which soil quality is improving are farms that use manures and slurry to improve the soil—we no longer have that in many of the big intensive agricultural areas.

Climate Change

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8. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on tackling climate change. [910784]

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13. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on tackling climate change. [910790]

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Tackling climate change is a cross-Government priority and it is one of a range of issues that I discuss with all Cabinet colleagues. My Department works closely with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy to reduce emissions in the natural resources sector, as set out in the clean growth strategy.

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I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Of course Scotland leads the way not only on renewable energy production but on the commercialisation of new renewable energy technology. Can he explain how this area is a priority for his Government when they are cutting the subsidies to renewable energy generators? When will he review that process so that Scotland can continue to generate new renewable electricity and export it to the rest of the UK?

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I am happy to congratulate the many entrepreneurs, innovators and others who have been responsible for powering ahead with the growth of the renewables sector not just in Scotland but across the United Kingdom. One of the reasons why subsidies for solar, for example, have been cut is because the price has come down—the subsidies were necessary to kick-start investment. It is a fact that 99% of solar power generated in this country has been generated since 2010—since the Conservatives have been in Downing Street.

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I understand that the Secretary of State sat in close attention when Greta Thunberg visited recently. Following her visit, will he tell us whether he agrees with the Scottish Government that there is a climate change emergency? If so, what does he intend to do to cut emissions from aviation?

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There absolutely is a climate change emergency and a need to act, and Greta Thunberg’s testimony was incredibly powerful. When it comes to aviation, we need to work with the sector to ensure that we balance the need to promote growth and, indeed, the need to promote links across the United Kingdom while moving towards meeting our net zero goal.

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The Scottish Affairs Committee, the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee and, most recently, the Committee on Climate Change all agree with the Carbon Capture and Storage Association that carbon capture, usage and storage technology—CCUS—is essential for achieving a net zero emissions target by 2050. Does my right hon. Friend therefore agree that, in order to tackle climate change properly, we must develop a CCUS cluster like the Acorn project, which is centred on St Fergus in my constituency? Does he also agree that this cluster approach is far more effective technically and financially than previously proposed carbon capture and storage programmes?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right and we are absolutely committed to supporting the work in St Fergus. Technological breakthroughs in institutions such as Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen are also precisely the sorts of work that we should be getting behind.

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Today the Environment Agency announced that it is preparing for a catastrophic 4° rise in global temperatures and huge sea level rises. The EA says it needs £1 billion a year for coastal defences, but the Government have allocated only £2.6 billion over six years —less than half of what the EA says is needed. When should we expect the necessary increase in funding and a plan to protect our vulnerable coastal communities?

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The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. First, I record my thanks to Emma Howard Boyd and Sir James Bevan, the chair and chief executive of the Environment Agency, for the leadership that they have shown on this issue. Under this Government, record amounts have been spent on flood defences and record efforts have been made to combat climate change. However, in both cases, more needs to be done. The national policy statement will be forthcoming shortly.

Moorland Wildfires

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9. What steps the Government is taking to reduce the risk of wildfire destroying moorland. [910785]

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It is good to see the hon. Lady back in her place for the first DEFRA questions since returning from maternity leave and the safe arrival of baby James. Congratulations.

Protecting our moorland from wildfires is essential. The risk of severe damage from wildfire on wet, well functioning blanket bog is relatively low. Natural England is working with landowners and land managers through its uplands programme to develop long-term management plans. We are also currently undertaking a wildfire review to ensure that our future land management policies minimise the risks of wildfire.

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I am grateful to the Minister for that response and for his kind words.

In West Yorkshire alone, there have been three significant wildfires in the past 18 months. The Minister will be aware that, if we manage our moorland and peat bogs responsibly, they will lock in water, which protects us from flooding; they will lock in carbon; and, kept wet, they will also protect us from wildfires. What more can we do to manage those moorlands and peat bogs responsibly?

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The hon. Lady is absolutely right that healthy wet peatlands help carbon storage and minimise and reduce fire risk. That is why peatland restoration is an urgent priority. DEFRA is currently funding four large-scale peatland restoration projects across England, involving a £10 million fund, including in the north of England uplands, the Welsh borders, Dartmoor and Exmoor and, of course, the south Pennines: vital work that we need to take forward.

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Staffordshire moorlands has some magnificent heathland, but it has been affected by severe fires in the last year. Those are sometimes caused by disposable barbecues. Has the Minister looked at ways of ensuring the more responsible purchase and use of such barbecues?

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We work closely with Natural England and the Home Office to see how we can tackle these issues. Operational plans are in place with fire services as well.

Seabirds

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10. What plans his Department has to develop and resource a recovery plan for seabirds. [910786]

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Our focus is on ensuring that effective monitoring and protection are in place. Since 2017, we have increased the protection of seabirds by creating five new marine special protection areas and extending a further nine sites. I draw your attention in particular, Mr Speaker, to the SPA at Flamborough Head, which has been extended to protect nesting and foraging areas for a range of seabirds, including kittiwakes and puffins.

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I am greatly enlightened and deeply obliged to the Minister.

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I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. The UK’s seabird population is in serious decline. Will the Minister use the forthcoming review of the UK marine strategy to set out a recovery plan that includes both targets and a timeline?

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Yes, we will. The plan will include targets to ensure that good environmental status is met for seabirds and set the indicators that we use to assess their status. Of course, we will continue to do other work such as reducing the impact of invasive species, which are damaging seabird colonies; carrying out the UK plan of action on seabird bycatch; and, as many across the House support, reducing marine litter, particularly marine plastic.

Environment Agency: Pay Dispute

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11. Whether he plans to meet representatives of the Environment Agency to discuss the recent pay dispute at that agency. [910787]

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That is very disappointing to hear. We have just heard praise for the Environment Agency, but its staff have seen a 20% cut in real terms over the past decade. The agency is suffering from recruitment and retention problems and, inevitably, low morale. Will the Minister think again and at least press the Environment Agency to reopen the discussions?

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No, because it is an operational matter for the Environment Agency and it would not be appropriate for the Government to get involved in the human resources issues of an independent agency.

Major Infrastructure Projects

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12. What steps his Department takes to ensure that major infrastructure projects comply with all environmental licences, permissions and protections. [910788]

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I know this is a topic close to your heart, Mr Speaker.

Large infrastructure projects may require an environmental impact assessment of the likely significant environmental effects. In the case of nationally significant infrastructure projects, the EIA forms part of the development consent order application. Requirements are routinely imposed to ensure that development is delivered sustainably. Projects such as High Speed 2 include environmental minimum requirements and associated controls linked to the EIA.

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I am glad that the Minister brought up HS2. Even before construction has been given the go-ahead, the HS2 enabling works have breached environmental undertakings and assurances. Given that the project will destroy 100 ancient woodlands, how can we ensure that what DEFRA is trying to achieve in preserving our environment is not going to be destroyed by the HS2 construction companies as they desperately scramble to cut corners and cut the costs of this highly expensive and useless project?

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The environmental impact assessment is an important part of the planning process. The development of HS2 will require a number of protective provisions, consents and licences for work that affects protected sites and species and other aspects of the natural environment. The Environment Agency and Natural England will continue to work with HS2 Ltd to ensure that it complies with the conditions set out by the requirements. I recognise the issue relating to the ancient woodlands, but I am sure my right hon. Friend will join me in celebrating the fact that 7 million new trees will be planted, and planting has already started.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [910794]

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First, I thank colleagues from all parties for their support for the Government in giving the Wild Animals in Circuses (No. 2) Bill its Second Reading. Thinking of our responsibility to the natural world, I extend my sympathy to the family of Guardsman Mathew Talbot. Mathew died working on an anti-poaching initiative in Africa just two days ago. He was a distinguished young 22-year-old solider who was fighting to preserve the natural world. Our sympathies go out to his family, friends and colleagues.

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Vale of Evesham asparagus is the only asparagus with protected geographical indication status. As I am sure the Secretary of State is aware, we are currently in the middle of the British Asparagus Festival, which is held mainly in my constituency. Would he like to join me at that festival and to show his support for great British farmers who grow not only the best asparagus in the world but so much more fantastic, world-class British produce?

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on his drawing attention to the importance of asparagus growers in our broader agricultural export successes. It is not only grown in the Vale of Evesham, beautiful part of the country though it is; we also grow world-beating asparagus in Yorkshire. Overall, asparagus exports have secured £3.2 million for this country. Although I cannot join the festival, I would be delighted to share some asparagus with my hon. Friend at the first available opportunity.

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We are now considerably better informed about the asparagus situation.

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Last week, the House made history by declaring a climate and environmental emergency. The Labour motion that was passed gives the Government six months to table urgent proposals to restore our natural environment and tackle devastating climate change. That means that the deadline is 1 November. The clock has started to tick. Will the Secretary of State confirm whether the Cabinet has met to discuss the urgent nature of the motion? When will he publish a timeline that clearly sets out how the UK can reach net zero emissions by at least 2050?

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I thank the hon. Lady for underlining the cross-party, consensual approach that the House has taken to dealing with climate change and the broader environmental crisis that we face. The House will be updated not only on progress against the 25-year environment plan and not just in response to the recent report by the Committee on Climate Change on how to reach net zero by 2050, but on a broader suite of measures that every Government Department, from the Treasury to my own, is committed to ensuring that we deliver.

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T2. What steps have been taken to establish a Great Britain-wide deposit return scheme for plastic bottles, which the industry wants, including Highland Spring in Blackford in my constituency? [910796]

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Having had the opportunity to visit Highland Spring, thanks to my hon. Friend, I endorse wholeheartedly the company’s leadership in providing high-quality products to so many people across the world. It also provides employment in his constituency. Highland Spring, like us, wants to ensure that we have a UK-wide scheme. Although I applaud the ambition of Roseanna Cunningham, the Scottish Government Environment Minister, in taking forward a DR scheme, it is absolutely vital that we make sure it works UK-wide. I hope and believe that the Scottish Government will now put the interests of the United Kingdom ahead of the ideology of separatism that sometimes creeps into some of the things they come up with.

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T4. One of the recommendations in the Committee on Climate Change’s report last week was a 20% reduction in meat consumption by 2050 to meet that net zero goal. Can the Secretary of State set out how he plans to achieve that in a way that is fair and equitable? Red meat is obviously particularly important in the diets of children and women, and we do not want to use price as the mechanism. [910798]

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That was a typically balanced and thoughtful contribution from the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee. One thing I would say is that sustainable farming, particularly mixed and livestock farming, is a critical part of ensuring that we have a healthy environment. I absolutely take on board her point. One thing we absolutely do not want to do is use a crude taxation intervention when it is much more sensible to work with farmers to raise the quality of livestock. There are things we can do on how livestock farmers operate that can contribute to reducing emissions, while at the same time maintaining high-quality red meat that is available to people at every price point.

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T3. May I invite you, Mr Speaker, your officials and all Members in the Chamber to join me, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Kew Gardens, the British Beekeepers Association and others as the all-party parliamentary group for bees and pollinators discusses how we can green the parliamentary estate and get a hive of bees on board as well? Does the DEFRA team agree that we would all get a tremendous buzz to see Parliament as a hive of activity for our pollinators? [910797]

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I had better answer this with a coat of honey. It is important that this Parliament is open to nature. We have already seen great changes through the Administration Committee and what we are trying to do about elements of plastic. The Department already has a beehive on its roof and I am keen that we should continue to do whatever we can as leaders. I am sure that my hon. Friend will also be very aware of the national pollinator strategy and how important it is to the future of biodiversity and sustainable food production.

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T5. At Treasury questions a few weeks ago, Ministers boasted about how much hauliers had saved through the freezing of the fuel duty escalator. When I challenged them on the environmental impact, they looked absolutely amazed, as though the thought had never cross their minds. Should the Secretary of State be in a position of influence later this summer in a new Administration, will he be equally blinkered or will he be bold in tackling emissions from road transport? [910799]

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I am frankly amazed at the suggestion that any Minister should indulge in something as prideful as boastfulness. I suspect that my Treasury colleagues were pointing out that this Government combines economic efficiency with environmental stewardship in an unprecedented fashion, which is why we have been responsible for reducing carbon emissions faster than any other G20 nation while at the same time growing the economy over the past 20 years by more than 66%.

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T6. Consumers are doing everything they can to reduce the amount of packaging and to recycle their plastic, but supermarkets are continuing to wrap fresh produce, in particular, in massive amounts of plastic that cannot be recycled. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is high time the supermarkets did more to protect our planet? [910800]

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We are meeting supermarkets on Monday at a big event at the V&A, hosted by the food waste champion Ben Elliot, about how to reduce food waste. The majority of vegetables do not need plastic packaging to extend their life, but some do, which is why we have to take a scientific evidence-based approach. Let me point out to my hon. Friend what we said in the resources and waste strategy: we would like to see more plastic-free aisles in our supermarkets and unnecessary use of plastic must be stopped as quickly as possible.

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Last month, I visited Mountfield Primary School in my constituency. The pupils there told me that the No. 1 issue for them is plastics and litter in their environment. Pupils at Canning Street Primary School have also raised this with me. What is the Minister doing to get plastics out of the lives of the children in my constituency?

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First, let me thank the tens of thousands of volunteers who participated in the month-long litter-picking campaign. It really matters that we try to tackle litter locally, and that is about education and activity. We have given councils extensive new powers to impose fines to try to reduce such behaviour.

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The chair of the Environment Agency has highlighted the need for help in addressing coastal flooding. We need to protect not only houses, but some of the most fertile land in this country, from future flooding. Can we have a real plan for the way forward?

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Yes. I have had the privilege with my hon. Friend, who chairs the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, of visiting the Steart peninsula in Somerset and seeing effective flood management that makes sure that we balance the need to protect nature with the need to preserve farmland. It is vital that we say more, and we will shortly in our national policy statement.

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Thinking of young people and food production, the primary school in the small village of Inver in my constituency has a polytunnel. I do not know whether the school grows asparagus, but it certainly grows very good carrots and other vegetables to make delicious soup for the pupils. The pupils also sell the vegetables to their parents to make money for the school. Does the Secretary of State agree that it would be very helpful if this idea was replicated in all schools across the UK? Perhaps, Mr Speaker, we could even have a polytunnel for hon. and right hon. Members to grow vegetables here on the estate.

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That sounds very exciting, I must say—very entrepreneurial. I think it is time that I visited Caithness.

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All I can say is that I associate myself with the words uttered by you, Mr Speaker.

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Well, this is a very welcome trend and should be encouraged to continue.

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What discussions has my right hon. Friend been having with his Cabinet colleagues about cutting vehicle emissions—for instance, by improving the infrastructure of charging points in cities for electric and hybrid vehicles, which is absolutely critical to this aim?

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My hon. Friend raises an important point. I have been working with the Secretaries of State for Transport, for Business and for Housing, Communities and Local Government to ensure that charging points are automatically included in new developments. But there is more that we must do to ensure that we have an infrastructure that allows us to move towards ultra low emissions vehicles as quickly as possible.

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Contrary to what the Secretary of State said to me last week, the DEFRA main estimate says that the budget for peatland restoration is unchanged. I am not going to ask for an apology, but the Secretary of State knows that peat amounts to 10% of our carbon dioxide emissions, so when is he going to increase the measly £6 million budget?

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After a rebuke like that, I must do so as soon as possible.

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As much as I would like to continue indefinitely with these stimulating exchanges, I am afraid that we must move on.

Church Commissioners

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

Persecution of Christians: FCO Global Review

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1. What response the Church of England has made to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s global review of the persecution of Christians, announced in December 2018. [910763]

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The Church warmly welcomed the decision by the Foreign Secretary to launch an independent review of his Department’s support for persecuted Christians, which is being chaired by the Bishop of Truro. The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster made a joint submission to that review, setting out practical recommendations for how the Government could take action to protect Christians facing persecution and to promote freedom of religion more widely.

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The Sri Lanka terrorist attacks brought home the FCO’s recent review findings that Christians are suffering persecution at near genocide levels. Alongside the growing Christianophobia, there are growing incidents of Islamophobia—such as at Christchurch—and anti- semitism. What more can the Church of England do in co-ordinating international action across all faiths to combat hatred and violence against different faith communities by varied manifestations of the far right?

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That interim report, which I recommend colleagues read, is quite a shocking revelation about how extensive the persecution of Christians and other minority religions around the world is. Just yesterday, the Archbishop of Canterbury invited the Foreign Secretary and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Lambeth Palace to discuss international religious freedom. The meeting included the Chief Rabbi and representatives of other faiths, because, as the Bishop of Rochester said in another place, it is almost impossible to predict when such terrorist attacks will occur and where.

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The Foreign Secretary has commendably authorised that independent report, but does my right hon. Friend agree that unless the Department for International Development also engages with the interim report and with the recommendations in the final report when it is produced, this country will never achieve what it could achieve in addressing this issue internationally?

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I do agree. In fact, one of the key points of the Church of England’s submission is that there needs to be a joined-up approach more widely, right across Government, to the challenges of keeping freedom of religion and belief. That is why, with the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), I visited the former Minister who was jointly responsible at DFID and the Foreign Office to make sure that civil servants receive the right kind of training so that they really understand the threats that persecuted religious minorities face.

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The right hon. Lady will be very aware of the situation in Sudan at the moment, with such a complex outcome following the removal of Bashir. Will she urge the Archbishop of Canterbury to look at the possibility of an early visit there to make sure that Christians in Sudan are protected?

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This allows me to share with the House a bit of good news on a rather serious and depressing subject, which is that the Archbishop of Canterbury, together with Pope Francis, brokered a meeting in Rome of the key players from the Sudanese conflict zone. Those talks made really significant progress in bringing about peace in countries where a war has claimed over 400,000 lives.

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International aid spending to recipient countries needs to be cut unless effective action is taken against attacks on Christians. Do the Church Commissioners agree?

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The Church Commissioners are completely supportive of the statutory requirement in our law that 0.7% of our total income as a country should be spent on the world’s poorest people. In fact, DFID’s programmes do direct themselves to the support of vulnerable minorities, but obviously the point of the report commissioned independently by the Foreign Secretary is to see how much more effective we can be at tackling the threats to religion and to people’s freedom of religion and belief.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Voter Registration and Participation

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3. What recent steps the commission has taken to increase voter (a) registration and (b) participation. [910765]

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While the commission’s remit does not include increasing participation in elections, it has an important duty to promote awareness of elections. The commission’s campaign for this year’s local elections saw over 570,000 applications, exceeding its target by 36%. Its campaign relating to the European parliamentary elections ended on Tuesday, and it saw a further 539,206 people apply to register. The commission also works to make improvements to the registration system itself. It is supporting the UK Government in their work to reform the canvass, and later this year it will publish the findings of feasibility studies examining how publicly held data could be used to improve the registration system.

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I thank my hon. Friend for that answer, but does she agree that we have seen a serious decline in registration activity? The number of young people registering in time for the Euro elections has been pitiful. The fact of the matter is that we can go digital and do all that stuff, but it used to be about knocking on someone’s door and checking that they were on the register, and that is what really worked.

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My hon. Friend will know that the commission wants as many people as possible to be registered to vote and able to participate in our democracy, but he is right to point out that young people are far less likely to register to vote than others. I will make sure that the commission is aware of his concerns and takes account of what he said as its research work continues in this area.

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Can the hon. Lady outline any discussions that have taken place regarding the ability to vote online and any security advice that has been sought with regard to that proposal?

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I am not able to provide any recent updates, but I will ensure that the Electoral Commission contacts the hon. Gentleman to discuss his interest in that area.

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Mr Chris Ruane? Oh, very well—the hon. Gentleman could come in on this question if he wanted, but if he wants to preserve his own question, so be it.

House of Commons Commission

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

Staff Bullying and Harassment: Cox Recommendations

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4. What the timeframe is for the implementation of the recommendations made by Dame Laura Cox in her report on the bullying and harassment of House of Commons staff. [910767]

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Dame Laura made three fundamental recommendations. In response to the first, the Commission immediately terminated the Respect and Valuing Others policies. In response to the second, the Commission has been considering options for the investigation of non-recent cases of bullying, harassment and sexual misconduct and expects to put a final proposal to the House before the summer recess. In response to the third, the Commission has agreed the establishment of a working group to consider how the process of complaints against MPs could be made fully independent, and we are in the process of agreeing the membership. Finally, the House service has appointed an independent director of cultural transformation, to translate Dame Laura’s wide recommendations into tangible, meaningful and lasting change.

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I am grateful for the update. It is very important that the House is seen to be acting swiftly on this. Let us not forget that it is more than seven months since the report came out, and it is frankly damning that we are still talking about things happening in the future. I urge the right hon. Gentleman to get on with this and get the justice that victims deserve.

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The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. I can reassure him that the House of Commons Commission is considering these important recommendations at every meeting, but we have not made the progress that we should have done. These are complex issues, and we hope that the working group will be established soon, to process how to deal with complaints against MPs independently of Members of Parliament.

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I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that response, but I want to push him a bit further. Underlying attitudes—sometimes misogynistic or deeply sexist attitudes—are frequently behind sexual harassment. What plans does the Commission have to implement training or awareness raising that targets people who are unlikely to take it up if they are not required to do so?

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The hon. Lady makes a valid point. She may be aware that training is being made available to staff, and I understand that a trial will be made available for Members. Although the Commission and I are not in a position to require Members of Parliament to attend those sessions, I think it is essential that they do.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Voter Registration

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6. What recent assessment the commission has made of trends in the level of voter registration. [910769]

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The commission carries out regular assessments of the completeness and accuracy of the electoral registers, including how levels of voter registration vary by demographics such as age and ethnicity. The most recent published assessment found that, across Great Britain, 85% of eligible people were correctly registered, and 91% of entries on the register were accurate. The commission’s next study, on the December 2018 registers, is due to be published later this year.

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Before every election, the Electoral Commission runs an advertising campaign to get people registered, and it judges the effectiveness by the number of downloads of registration forms. Those advertising campaigns have cost as much as £90 per download. Bite The Ballot, an organisation that recruits young people in schools, can have a 100% success rate in going into sixth forms and getting people on to the electoral register, and it can do that for 25p a time. Will my hon. Friend take that back to the Electoral Commission and ask it to have service level agreements with Bite The Ballot and other organisations that have an effective record on registration?

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who I know has a keen interest in ensuring that people are registered to vote. The commission does not currently have service level agreements with other organisations. Instead, it collaborates through informal partnerships. The commission has a responsibility in law to raise awareness. There is plurality in the system, and that is its strength. However, I am sure that officials from the commission would be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss what more can be done in this area.

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Has the commission made any assessment of the registration of EU citizens to vote in the European Union elections that are about to take place, and whether it would be appropriate for them to be able take to polling stations on 23 May the form that they are required to have handed in by 7 May if they want to vote in those elections in the UK?

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Following the 2014 European parliamentary elections, the commission did identify that the law needed to be simplified so that EU citizens from other member states might register to vote in the UK. However, following the EU referendum, the UK Government made it clear that the parliamentary elections to the European Parliament in 2019 would not take place, and therefore the commission did not continue to develop any further recommendations in this area.

Church Commissioners

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

Christian Community in Sri Lanka

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7. What support the Church of England is offering to the Christian community in Sri Lanka in response to the recent terrorist attacks in that country. [910770]

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These were appalling and despicable attacks, and those affected were in the prayers of millions right around the world on Easter Sunday. They were clearly directed at the Christian community in Sri Lanka not just in their churches, but in secular environments such as hotels where they were having Easter Sunday lunch. The Anglican Church in Sri Lanka is small but active, and it is working closely with the Anglican communion to build its capacity in the local community and to better protect itself.

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I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for that answer. It is indeed tragic that 257 Christians were killed in the attacks directed at them on Easter Day. Everybody is entitled to freedom of religion and belief. Does she agree that the message we should send out from this House is that no faith sanctions conflict against another?

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I entirely agree with the hon. Lady. I could not put it better myself.

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Will my right hon. Friend pass on to Christians in Sri Lanka just how much we admire their peaceful and dignified response, and indeed that of all Sri Lankans, to this atrocity?

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I certainly will pass that on. The Archbishop of Canterbury immediately called the Bishop of Colombo after these attacks, and has offered support and help to bring the perpetrators to justice. The bishop himself has called for

“the safety of places of religious worship and to prevent any individuals or group taking the law into their hands or provoking acts of intimidation or violence against any community or group.”

This remains crucial in that country.

Electoral Commission Committee

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

Electoral Law

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8. What recent representations she has received from the Electoral Commission on the effectiveness of electoral law. [910771]

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The commission believes that there is an urgent need for simplified and modernised electoral law. It has submitted evidence to the recently announced inquiry on electoral law by the Select Committee on Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs. The commission is concerned that a piecemeal approach to electoral law reform will increase complexity and inconsistency. As part of these reforms, it wants legislation to improve the transparency of digital campaigns, to bring greater alignment between party and candidate regulatory frameworks, and to strengthen the impact of its sanctions.

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Does the hon. Lady share my concern that electoral law was broken in the EU referendum, the close result of which must now be questioned? Given that the Tories in Scotland were fined £400 by the Electoral Commission over a £100,000 dark money donation in the weeks before the 2016 Holyrood election, does she not agree that penalties for breaking electoral law must be urgently reviewed to ensure that they are fit for purpose and genuinely deter those minded to cheat?

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The commission continues to urge each of the UK’s Governments to introduce legislation to strengthen its sanctioning powers. Its view is that the penalties need to be more proportionate to the income and expenditure of parties and campaigners.

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Electoral law is far too important to play party politics with, in my view. I have the pleasure of serving on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. I also served on the independent commission on referendums and their rules, run by the Constitution Unit. In its report, which was very comprehensive, we made a number of recommendations for changes to the law. May I ask the hon. Lady whether she has read that report, what she thinks of those recommendations and whether she, like me, would encourage the House to look at them urgently and pass them into law?

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I am grateful to the right hon. Lady, who raises an important point. Many of those recommendations are in alignment with the views of the Electoral Commission in urging change. She will know that the Government have indicated that they intend to bring forward changes to digital imprints for online campaigning, which will be an important step forward. I am sure that the commission would be grateful for any action she took to urge Ministers to bring forward that legislation as quickly as possible.

Church Commissioners

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

Cathedrals: Fire Safety

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9. What steps the Church of England is taking to increase fire safety in cathedrals. [910772]

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10. What steps the Church of England is taking with the Government to ensure the fire safety of cathedrals and churches following the Notre Dame fire. [910774]

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Fire safety is a concern for all historic buildings, and they are particularly vulnerable during renovations or building works. Since the Notre Dame fire, the Cathedral and Church Buildings Division has worked with the Cathedral Architects Association to ensure that its records are up to date. It will continue to work closely on that issue, and a national conference on the matter is being considered.

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George Osborne, the former Chancellor, found £40 million for the fabric of our cathedrals. Are we ensuring that that money is spent effectively, and that cathedrals work closely with local fire brigades?

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The Church of England was deeply grateful to the former Chancellor for the £40 million of funding on the commemoration of the centenary of the first world war, and it resulted in important repair work to some of our most iconic buildings. For example, Lichfield cathedral was completely rewired, and it might otherwise have had to be closed because of the fire risk it represented.

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What steps are being taken to support the creation of 3D laser maps to record our notable historical buildings and provide an accurate record of their construction in the event of damage?

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I wonder whether my hon. Friend has enjoyed watching the TV programme “Ancient Invisible Cities”, where scanners are used to reveal what lies behind ancient buildings such as pyramids. I must tell the House, however, that such methods are very, very expensive. Lincoln and St Albans cathedrals have done that, but there are many other ways to try to be sure of the data on our cathedrals. We have good archives, maps, photographs and accounts that often give an excellent record of what lies behind those magnificent stones.

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The hon. Gentleman’s impassive countenance suggests that he is not at this time willing to vouchsafe to us his viewing preferences, but they have been hinted at by the right hon. Lady, and perhaps he will update us on the matter in due course.

Refugees in Sri Lanka

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(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister for Asia and the Pacific what representation his Department has made to the Government of Sri Lanka regarding the safety of 1,193 UNHCR refugees in Negombo, who went to Sri Lanka fleeing religious persecution in their countries, but who now fear for their safety following the terrible Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka.

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Following the Easter Sunday attacks in Sri Lanka, there have been reports of isolated incidents of violence and of intimidation and discrimination against Muslims, refugees and asylum seekers. In Negombo, a suburb to the north of Colombo where the terrorist attacks took place, 985 refugees and asylum seekers were forcibly displaced from their ordinary places of residence, according to UN figures. Those refugees and asylum seekers, who are mostly of Pakistani origin, are being temporarily housed and protected to meet their immediate security and humanitarian needs.

Our high commission in Colombo, led by our outstanding high commissioner, James Dauris, is in contact with the Government and UN agencies to work towards a more sustainable solution, and the UK is monitoring that situation carefully, along with other partners. The UN is providing basic support for food, drinking water, and immediate medical assistance, and co-ordinating with civil society to provide additional relief items. The humanitarian situation at the police station in Negombo is a concern. The police have so far been very welcoming, but we understand that facilities there are insufficient.

Staff at our high commission are assisting in advocating and co-ordinating with the Sri Lankan Government more generally to identify safe and secure relocation options to ensure the protection of refugees and asylum seekers. We understand that processes are under way for some of the refugees to be resettled in third countries, and 412 refugees are currently in the midst of the UNHCR resettlement process.

Ministers and representatives of the UK Government have met Sri Lankan counterparts over the past three weeks to reinforce the importance of inclusivity and respect for human rights in response to the Easter Sunday attacks, and to underline the importance of Sri Lankans working together to avoid intercommunal tensions. As was brought up earlier, I think we can all be pleased, without being complacent, that over the past three weeks there has been a sense of unity within Sri Lanka as a whole.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Security and Economic Crime visited Sri Lanka on 2 and 3 May, and met the President, the Prime Minister, military and religious leaders and senior Government officials to highlight the importance of those points and to talk more generally about security resilience. Foreign and Commonwealth Minister Lord Ahmad and I have met the Sri Lankan high commissioner over the past fortnight to raise general concerns about refugees and minority rights in Sri Lanka.

I think all of us want to put on the record our grave concern about what happened. These were terrible events and our commiserations go to all those who remain affected and will be affected for some years to come.

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I thank the Minister for his response. I am sure we all send our heartfelt sympathy to the people of Sri Lanka and to all those mourning the loss of friends and family following the terrible Easter bombings.

Now that the spotlight of the media has turned, another tragedy is unfolding. There are 1,193 UNHCR refugees and asylum seekers, including 174 children, who have fled to three makeshift refugees camps in Negombo: the Pasyala Ahmadiyya mosque, the Negombo Ahmadiyya mosque and Negombo police station. Hostility towards Muslims following the attacks has led to growing violence, leading the refugees and asylum seekers to seek urgent safety. The conditions in the camps are worryingly inhumane. There is a severe lack of food and water, minimal toilet facilities, no medical facilities or basic sanitary facilities, no walls or beds, and not enough space to lie down. Over the bank holiday weekend, a child was born on the floor of one of the mosques. No doctor was present. Just this morning, latest updates indicated that more than one person had been taken to hospital due to illness.

The refugees and asylum seekers are largely from religious minorities who have suffered threats, attacks and persecution in their home countries. Many are Ahmadi Muslims who fled Pakistan, where their religious views may be punishable with death. Ahmadis identify as Muslims, but do not believe that Muhammad was the final prophet sent to guide mankind. This leads many of the refugees to be deemed to be “non-Muslim” in their home countries and to face persecution because of their beliefs. Now, in Sri Lanka, they face an imminent threat to their safety because they are considered to be Muslims.

The welfare of those in the makeshift camps is an immediate and serious concern, as is the possibility that these people will be forced to return to the places they fled from. Will the Minister use all his power to expedite the resettlement of the UNHCR refugees to safe third countries?

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I thank the hon. Lady. She is very persistent: this is the third day running that she has applied for an urgent question on this matter. Robert the Bruce would be proud: if at first you don’t succeed, try, try and try again.

The hon. Lady makes a very serious point, not least about the Ahmadi Muslims and the terrible paradox of their situation. They are regarded as outcasts in much of the Muslim world, but find themselves very much at the forefront of tensions. It is important that we do not overstate those tensions. As I said in my statement, the high commission on the ground and our UNHCR partners will do all we can, but it is remarkable that, given the history of intercommunal conflict in Sri Lanka, over the past three weeks there has been relatively little that has led to direct concern. However, she is also quite right to say that housing over 1,698 asylum seekers and refugees, according to UN figures, in three unsatisfactory makeshift camps—the Negombo police station and the two mosques—is clearly not sustainable.

Civil society contacts with whom we are working have reported other incidents of displacement and harassment of refugees in other parts of Colombo. It is important to recognise that we work together with many other high commissions and embassies in the area, including those of the US, Canada and a number of European countries who have a strong Sri Lankan diaspora whom they also wish to represent.

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Can the Minister be more specific about the support the Government are giving to the Christian community in Sri Lanka following the Easter Sunday attacks?

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I am always touched by the amount of work my hon. Friend does in this regard, not just in Sri Lanka, but across the world. We are of course concerned at reports of minorities being intimidated, and as she rightly says, the focus of the attacks on Easter Sunday was the Christian community in several locations across Sri Lanka. As she will know, we welcome the interim report by the Bishop of Truro on the persecution of Christians worldwide and we look forward to the final report, which is to be published in the summer.

Freedom of religion and belief is clearly a priority for the Foreign Office, and we and our high commission are working to ensure that the threads of the report that are particularly relevant to Sri Lanka will have an impact there. The Christian community in Sri Lanka is of long standing. Part is Roman Catholic and other bits are Anglican, from our colonial times, but we hope to work together with all Christian communities. This is part and parcel of a package that does not represent one religion above others, but ensures that in this melting pot within Sri Lanka, all religions and faiths can live side by side peaceably and in prosperity.

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Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on securing it. She has been very persistent and is right to draw to the House’s attention the plight of these refugees. I also thank the Minister for his response. I know he is very busy at the moment covering a large number of countries, but he brings a dedication to these issues, for which we are all grateful.

It is a matter great sadness that, despite the surge of national unity led by the Sri Lankan Government in the wake of the Easter Sunday attacks, groups of mindless individuals have instead responded to the attacks with reprisals against the refugee communities from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. They have responded to an act of sectarian hatred with further acts of sectarian hatred, which ultimately is what the terrorists want. The Sri Lankan Government have as much of a duty to crack down on this violence and to protect those refugee communities as they have to track down the organisers of the Easter Sunday bombings.

On behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition, I wholeheartedly endorse the demands of Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and the other non-governmental organisations about what the Sri Lankan Government must do now to protect the refugees and make sure they are given adequate shelter and care while the situation is resolved. Will the Minister say today that the Government will not just endorse those demands but press counterparts in Sri Lanka to act on them? Will he also tell the House what support the Government are providing to Sri Lanka and whether, if any help is requested by the Sri Lankans, the British Government will respond?

As my hon. Friend said, the bitter irony is that many of these refugees in Sri Lanka are there having already fled religious persecution, and they have done so only to find themselves under attack again. The Government of Sri Lanka must urgently protect them.

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I thank the hon. Lady for her kind words about my work. We have been on the opposite sides of this Chamber and other Chambers in this place several times in the past 48 hours, and I thank her for her constructive comments and for the work she does. She is absolutely right that we need to nip in the bud any return to sectarian hatred—something that is well known to anyone who has Sri Lanka close to their heart. The report makes very clear what is expected of the Sri Lankan Government, and we very much hope to work closely with them.

I have been to Sri Lanka as a Minister on three occasions in the past two years. It is a country that we take seriously, and I was very keen for my right hon. Friend the Minister for Security and Economic Crime to go out there in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, not least because we have some expertise to share in the important areas of institutionalised communication and preparedness. It is not for us to dictate that agenda, and obviously there is already important co-operation on the security and intelligence side, but we need to work closely on structures for the future to ensure that any sectarian hatred is nipped in the bud. When my right hon. Friend was in Sri Lanka, he met key national security figures, including the Defence Secretary, the State Minister of Defence and the army commander, as well as the Prime Minister. He also met the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Colombo.

We see our role as not to dictate but, hopefully, to provide useful advice. More generally, I hope that our experience as a result of what has happened in one part of the United Kingdom—Northern Ireland—can bear well on moving towards the reconciliation that all Sri Lankans deserve.

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The Sri Lankan economy has recently benefited from increased tourism, particularly through cruise ship visits. Can the Minister assure me that he keeps the travel advice for British citizens on Sri Lanka under constant review? How can he ensure that our visitors to Sri Lanka continue to contribute to its economy?

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I thank my right hon. Friend for her constructive thoughts; she is absolutely right. To recap, on 25 April the FCO amended our travel advice: we now advise against all but essential travel to Sri Lanka, except for airport transit. Obviously we hope that our advice can be adjusted as soon as possible, when the security situation allows, but given the somewhat chaotic immediate aftermath of the attacks, we felt that it was prudent. However, we understand that cruises and the fledgling but successful tourism industry in Sri Lanka will be very badly affected until we feel it is wise to update our travel advice.

The Foreign Secretary has made a statement to the House about the steps that the Government will take in the aftermath of the attacks. We very much hope to be able at the earliest opportunity to ease the travel restrictions that we put in place three weeks ago, but obviously that will be led by the evidence and the facts on the ground.

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Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker; I commend the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) for securing it. I concur with her words and those of the shadow Minister and the Minister of State. We add to those messages of sympathy to the people of Sri Lanka and those who have been caught up in the horrendous terror attacks of Easter Sunday. It is clear that some have heeded the wise words about compassion and tolerance spoken by the Bishop of Colombo, Dhiloraj Canagasabey, in response to the attacks, but that others have not. I hope that those words will now be heeded.

This is a tragedy heaped on a tragedy. Many of those who were caught up in the horrific terror attacks were already refugees: Ahmadis and Christians from Pakistan, Shi’as from Afghanistan, and refugees from Iran who had fled from religious, ethnic and political persecution in their country. What further assistance can the Minister provide to the UNCHR in expediting asylum claims? What assistance can he offer to the Sri Lankan Government? If, for whatever reason, the Sri Lankan Government cannot offer asylum, what can the UK Government and their counterparts do to ensure that these poor people are offered safe refuge as soon as possible?

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I know that the hon. Gentleman also applied for an urgent question on the matter; I suspect that he will table more next week on related matters.

Clearly we are working together. The pace at which we are working with UN agencies has increased in the aftermath of the attacks. As I mentioned, 412 individuals are already going through the process of resettlement to other parts of the world. We will continue to work closely with our partners in Sri Lanka; obviously there is a process that needs to be gone through, but we and they will try to expedite it to ensure that those refugees who are entitled to be moved on are moved on as quickly as possible.

I do not want to trivialise these matters, but we are obviously very pleased to see that the Sri Lankan cricket team has arrived in the UK for the world cup, which is imminent. That has some relevance at this point, because the first match of the one-day international series, which I believe will take place on Saturday week, will be against Scotland, of all places. I hope that, in true Scottish national style, the team will be given a very good welcome when they play in Broughty Ferry, or wherever it may be.

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The terrorists declared war on civil society and against the peace of Easter Sunday. What support can the Government give the Sri Lankan authorities so that they can take speedy decisions and actions against reprisal attacks, which would only aid the terrorists in their objectives?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right: sectarian hatred needs to be stamped out. That is clearly a matter for the Sri Lankan authorities, but we obviously stand ready to co-operate and assist in any way in which we may be asked to do so.

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I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) for asking the urgent question. The Minister said that 412 refugees were currently involved in the UNHCR resettlement process. May I press him on that? How many of those refugees does the UK intend to take, and what more can we do with the UNHCR to increase the number who are resettled and brought quickly to a safe haven?

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I hope the hon. Lady will excuse me if I write to her with more specific details once I have them to hand.

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Will my right hon. Friend commend the local Muslim communities who have already given many refugees shelter in mosques? What more can this country do to help with those camps, which appear to be pretty unpalatable at present?

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As my hon. Friend says, this can only be a short-term, interim measure, and we need something much more sustainable in future. The Government are spending £8.3 million of Conflict, Stability and Security Fund money on interfaith dialogue, reconciliation, police reform and training and de-mining in Sri Lanka, and a large sum on a wide range of other work, but I hope that elements of that can be used to deal with this urgent problem as well.

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As my hon. Friend the Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) has said, these refugee communities belong to religious minorities. Will the Minister make it clear to his Sri Lankan counterpart that there can be no question of their returning to Pakistan, Afghanistan or Iran, where they will inevitably face religious persecution?

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I am happy to reassure the hon. Gentleman that when there is a well-founded case for refugee and asylum status, there should be no question of that.

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It is easy to find compassion for people who were persecuted, left Pakistan, came to Sri Lanka and now face further persecution. Will the Minister confirm that he will stand up for the Ahmadis, who have been through so much, and is there anything practical that the international community can do to help the Sri Lankan authorities on the ground?

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I hope that I have explained in some detail what we are doing on the ground, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right, and we will do all that we can. The plight of the Ahmadis, which is a global plight, is close to our hearts. As my hon. Friend probably knows, Lord Ahmad himself is an Ahmadi Muslim.

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Given that the underlying issue is discrimination, and given that many of these poor refugees come from Pakistan, what representations will the Minister make to Imran Khan to make it clear that the blasphemy laws have no place in a modern world? They have caused not only this problem, but the case of Asia Bibi and, previously, the deaths of Salmaan Taseer and my friend Shahbaz Bhatti. It is about time that those laws were removed. Will the Minister do something about it?

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The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that our own high commission, and our excellent high commissioner Tom Drew in Islamabad, have made our concerns very clear. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Asia Bibi case. I think that we were all greatly relieved at the outcome, but obviously the security of her family is still at the forefront of our minds. I do not want comment on further speculation, but the fact that this matter has been resolved is, I think, a tribute not just to the Pakistan authorities but, in particular, to the new Pakistani Government. However, I will endeavour to ensure that our high commission is made fully aware of the specific concerns that the hon. Gentleman has raised.

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Will the Minister undertake to raise with Sri Lanka the need to seek UNHCR assistance in managing the settlements so that they are not de facto detention camps? Also, further efforts need to be made for the security of these refugees, and Sri Lanka needs to deploy adequate numbers of law enforcement officers to ensure the protection and security of these vulnerable people.

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The right hon. Lady makes the valid point that there is a risk, particularly if resettlement takes longer than we would all wish, that the settlements become de facto detention camps, which would be an unsatisfactory state of affairs, to put it mildly. As I have said, my counterpart from the Home Office was in Sri Lanka only last week and I know these sorts of issues were actively discussed. We will continue to make the case to which the right hon. Lady has referred.

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The Minister will be aware that the Ahmadi community in the UK is very active, including delivering condolence cards to Christian churches here following the attack in Sri Lanka and raising lots of money for charity in the UK and abroad. If that community chooses to fundraise for the refugees in Sri Lanka would the Government be able to match, or indeed better, the sum it raises?

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I had better be a little careful because though I have these added responsibilities, I do not have Treasury responsibilities. However, the right hon. Gentleman is right that it would be useful if we were able to match that sum in the way that we have on other occasions; perhaps he could write to me with specific details of that and I will take it up with the Treasury and other Departments.

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Vulnerable ethnic and religious minorities in Sri Lanka must be protected, and the Sri Lankan Government have given an undertaking to protect those who wish to worship their God. What has been done to assist those Ahmadis who have fled Pakistan in fear but are now afraid in Sri Lanka and seek somewhere else to relocate to to achieve that?

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The hon. Gentleman always speaks for the dispossessed across the world and stands up for the freedom of religious belief. As I have said, we are working closely on the ground to do all we can with international partners, particularly the UN, to make life better for those impacted. I hope to report back either in FCO questions next week, or in due course, about progress in what is happening in Sri Lanka.

Business of the House

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Will the Leader of the House give us the business for next week?

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The business for next week will include:

Monday 13 May—Second Reading of the Non-Domestic Rating (Preparation for Digital Services) Bill.

Tuesday 14 May—Opposition day (unallotted day). There will be a debate on prisons and probation followed by a debate entitled “Health and local public health cuts”. Both debates will arise on a motion in the name of the official Opposition.

Wednesday15 May—Motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to the draft Higher Education and Research Act 2017 (Further Implementation etc.) Regulations 2019, followed by general debate on serious violence.

Thursday 16 May—General debate on the definition of Islamophobia, followed by general debate on the international day against homophobia, biphobia and transphobia. The subjects of these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 17 May—The House will not be sitting.

Colleagues will also wish to know that subject to the progress of business the House will rise for the Whitsun recess at the close of business on Thursday 23 May and return on Tuesday 4 June.

The whole House will want to join me in congratulating the Duke and Duchess of Sussex on the birth of their new son, Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor. We wish them a lifetime of happiness together.

I am delighted that the Bill to enable the restoration and renewal of the Palace of Westminster has this week been introduced. In the wake of the tragic fire at Notre Dame, and with clear evidence here from recent fire incidents as well as falling masonry and many other safety issues, this Bill is vital to ensure we safeguard the seat of our democracy for future generations.

Finally, I am looking forward to taking part in one of the first voluntary independent complaints and grievance scheme training sessions for Members of Parliament later today, and I encourage all Members to show their commitment to our new behaviour code by taking part in one of the training sessions as soon as they can. As the six-month review of the ICGS is now well under way, the roll-out of the training for staff and Members will continue to demonstrate our commitment to treating everyone with dignity and respect.

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I thank the Leader of the House for giving us the forthcoming business. I was going to ask her for the Whitsun recess dates, so I am pleased that she has announced them. May I ask for an update on when we are likely to get the list of ministerial responsibilities? I should also like to press her on the summer recess dates. The deputy Prime Minister said that he thought 2 July was the cut-off date for EU matters. It should not be beyond the House to provide those dates.

Members have often raised the issue of Ministers and other MPs visiting their constituencies without giving notice, and it has now happened to me. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) kindly informed me that she was coming to my constituency, in fact getting me an invitation to launch a train—apparently there will be tea and sandwiches in one of my favourite places in the constituency, the New Art Gallery—but I had not even been invited, even though those events were taking place in my constituency. This is the second time that that has happened. The Under-Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mims Davies), kindly apologised to me when I was given notice of an event only two hours before she visited. Those Members were actually being quite helpful; it is just that something is going wrong with the offices and the invites. Will the Leader of the House please raise these courtesies and protocols with her colleagues? Members should be told about these visits, and indeed invited to the events.

I am pleased that the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill has been introduced. As we have all said, the skills and jobs should benefit all our constituencies throughout the country, not just a few property companies based here in London. We need to ensure that our constituents are involved. I say gently to the Leader of the House that I am sure the Clerk of the House practically faints when she mentions Notre Dame, because he would never allow people to be in this building if it was not safe. We know that people are constantly firefighting here every day, and no one would be allowed in the building if it was as unsafe as that.

Will the Leader of the House update us on when the withdrawal agreement Bill will be introduced? There has been some debate in the media about that. I do not think it was Faisal Islam who tweeted about it this time, but there has been some suggestion that it could be next Thursday, and I know that a Backbench debate has been scheduled for that day. Are the Government going to bring back the withdrawal agreement Bill next week?

We need certainty on that matter, because the right hon. Lady will have seen the research from the Incorporated Society of Musicians which shows that the uncertainty over Brexit is continuing to cause real damage to the music industry, which is a very important part of our GDP. The ISM has concerns about future work, mobility, visas, transportation of instruments and equipment, and health and social security. The research showed that 63 respondents cited difficulty in securing future work in the EU27 and EEA countries as the biggest issue that they faced because of Brexit. More than one in 10 respondents reported that offers of work had been withdrawn or cancelled with Brexit being given as the reason. May we have more certainty for that sector?

Many Members are trying on the captain’s hat, even though there is no vacancy for the captain of the ship, but as they look through the periscope, they will see that 200,000 nurses have left the NHS since 2010. If there is not a crisis, why are the Government having to recruit tens of thousands of nurses from overseas? It is because nurses are being driven out of the overstretched NHS owing to the lack of Government funding. Why are we seeing the first sustained fall in GP numbers in the UK in 50 years? Why are they leaving the profession? We also know that 30,000 ambulance staff have quit their jobs. Will the Leader of the House ensure that the Secretary of State for Health—when he takes off the captain’s hat—makes a statement on that crisis?

When the Home Secretary takes off the captain’s hat and looks through the periscope, he will see the crisis on our streets. The Prime Minister said yesterday that she had chaired a summit and a taskforce, and there will be a general debate on serious violence next week. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) wanted to raise this matter with the Leader of the House. Will she ensure that the Home Secretary comes to the House next week to report on the taskforce and to tell us exactly what is going to happen to stop people dying needlessly? Our police need their resources. Our criminal justice system also needs resources, and barristers are about to walk out on strike. It was no good the Leader of the House saying last week that it is up to the Justice Committee to respond when I raised the Criminal Bar Association’s strike. She cannot outsource responses to Select Committees; we need to know what the Government are doing.

The Leader of the House kindly said that she would get an answer to Opposition day motions within eight weeks, but exactly when will our climate emergency motion receive a response? The clue is in the word “emergency”. She will have seen the news about the effect of climate change on the unprecedented decline in biodiversity, and I will read out the whole thing so that people know what I mean. The Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services says that

“1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction”.

We need a response, and I understand that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs did not say when he would respond to our Opposition day motion.

May we have a debate in Government time on their flagship digital identification system Verify, which is failing its users? Only 3.9 million people have signed up, and it will affect those applying for universal credit most of all. Some 25 million users are expected by 2020.

I am pleased that the Backbench Business Committee agreed to a debate today, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray), in tribute to John Smith, the former leader of the Labour party, as we approach the 25th anniversary of his death on 12 May. He served as an MP for 24 years, and I am sure that hon. Members will do him justice. I remember the image of Smith and Brown striding into the Commons to take the Government apart with their brilliant arguments. At this time, we think of his widow Elizabeth and his brilliant daughters Sarah, Jane and Catherine. He would have been pleased that today is also Europe Day, which marks peace and prosperity within Europe.

The Opposition also wishes Archie Harrison Mountbatten-Windsor and all the babies born this week peace and prosperity for their futures.

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The hon. Lady raises several issues. The list of ministerial responsibilities will be updated in due course, and the summer recess is obviously subject to the progress, so I will announce it as soon as I can.

As for West Midlands Trains, I am glad that the hon. Lady accepts that my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) went out of her way to ensure that she was invited. It was a matter for West Midlands Trains and has nothing to do with any Government mission. As a matter of fact, when my hon. Friend raised the issue with West Midlands Trains, she was told that the hon. Lady had in fact been invited but had not checked her emails. I hope that that deals with that query. The hon. Lady should feel free to apologise to my hon. Friend if she wants to.

Turning to the Parliamentary Buildings (Restoration and Renewal) Bill, I am glad that the hon. Lady shares my delight at its introduction. I am particularly grateful to her for being one of the Bill’s sponsors. It is important that it is a parliamentary project, so I am delighted by the cross-party support for it.

The hon. Lady asked when the withdrawal agreement Bill will be introduced, but that is obviously subject to the talks with the Opposition. so I am sure that she will able to get an update from her own side. It is the Government’s intention to seek cross-party agreement to get a Bill that the whole House can support. It is absolutely essential that we leave the European Union, and it is utterly unacceptable that we have not done so three years after the referendum. I say to all hon. Members who are worried about the impact on businesses and on people going about their everyday lives that if they support the withdrawal agreement Bill, we can put such issues to rest and get on with the important matters that our constituents are concerned about.

The hon. Lady mentioned GPs, and I can tell her that under this Government the NHS is having its biggest-ever investment, with £33.9 billion in cash terms by 2023-24. There are over 4,500 more paramedics since this Government took office, and Health Education England recruited the highest number of GP trainees ever last year—nearly 3,500. We are committed to increasing access to general practice, which is vital to us all. The hon. Lady raises the issue of serious violence and the serious violence taskforce, and I hope that she noticed that, in response to the many requests from across the House, I announced that we will hold a debate in Government time on serious violence next week. It is my expectation that the Home Secretary will lead the debate—although, of course, that is not a matter for me to determine—and it is for Departments to decide who is the appropriate responder.

On Opposition day responses, I confirmed a couple of weeks ago that, in response to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee’s recent report on resolutions of the House of Commons, I have shortened the deadline for the Government to respond to motions passed by the House, from 12 weeks to eight weeks, to ensure the House gets those responses faster, while still ensuring that there is time for full and proper consideration of resolutions.

Finally, the Government and all parties agree that climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing the world. To give the hon. Lady a few of the Government’s actions, we have planted 15 million trees since 2010; we are calling for an increase from 10% to 30% of the world’s oceans to be marine protected areas by 2030; we have reduced our greenhouse gas emissions by 25% since 2010; and we have launched a 25-year environment plan with a pledge to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste. Those are just a few examples of this Government’s excellent work, and we are determined to be world leading in our actions, not words, to tackle the global challenge of climate change.

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May we have an urgent debate on the Turkish incursion into the Cyprus exclusive economic zone? The incursion is unlawful and unacceptable, and it is shocking that a NATO ally is responsible. This House needs an opportunity to condemn those actions.

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My right hon. Friend raises a serious issue that I am sure she will wish to raise at Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions on Tuesday 14 May. I commend her for raising the importance of such an issue.

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I thank the Leader of the House for announcing next week’s business. I wish her, most sincerely, all the best in her renewed leadership campaign. I do not know who has better odds—her of becoming Prime Minister or me of succeeding you in the Chair, Mr Speaker. I suspect it might be me, but it now looks like the Gloria Gaynor of 10 Downing Street might not survive much longer as the men in grey underpants set a timetable for her departure. So can we have a debate on cruelty in sport? There are now so many runners and riders that it will be like a dysfunctional grand national, with one Minister saying that few of them know how to ride.

The council elections went well, didn’t they? It is hard to think of an election in which both the Government and the main Opposition party got royally stuffed. We are all now looking forward to the European elections—the SNP certainly is—and we cannot wait to see the Tory manifesto. I bet they will be up all night writing that one. “Chapter one: we want to leave the EU, but the party won’t let us. Chapter two: please don’t vote for Farage! Chapter three: erm, that’s it.” I do not know whether the award for best comedy in a party political manifesto has yet been awarded, but it should definitely be delayed until we see that cracker.

We have not had an answer to the meaningful vote on the withdrawal agreement, but I think that the House deserves one. The rumour is that the Government will bring it back next week, with Thursday being suggested. What are the Government’s plans for the meaningful vote? When, and in what form, will they bring it back? This purgatory cannot go on any longer. Nothing is being done. Important Bills need to be brought back to the House, and we need to get back to work. The House rose early on two days this week, and this place is quickly becoming an international laughing stock. All I can say is that, after 20 years of devolution, we are looking forward to completing the powers of our Parliament in Scotland, and it will be goodbye to this place.

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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his, as ever, rather witty, if a little misguided, contribution. The fundamental problem is that his party does not believe in abiding by the result of referendums, whereas the Conservative party does. We had a referendum in 2016, and we are determined to deliver on the result by leaving the EU; Scotland had a referendum in 2014 and, regardless of whether it has another one, the SNP will abide by it only if it gets the result it wants.

As a huge supporter of the United Kingdom, I also welcome the 20 years of devolution, which has been a huge success—except to the extent that the hon. Gentleman’s Government in Scotland have failed to take up many of the powers they have been offered under devolution. It is extraordinary that a party in Scotland that claims to be able to set up within 18 months a new independent country with its own currency, while staying in the EU, cannot even manage to accept powers to take on VAT, welfare or any of those modest little issues. It seems extraordinary to me that the hon. Gentleman is preaching to my party, which is determined to deliver on the democratic will of the people.

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T.S. Eliot said:

“Knowledge is invariably a matter of degree”.

That was brought home again this morning when the Environment Agency predicted that many coastal areas, including much of South Holland and The Deepings, are at imminent risk of flooding. That is curious, given that for at least two decades the Environment Agency has predicted flood risk so inaccurately.

Floods have taken place everywhere, from Tewkesbury to Carlisle and from Stratford-upon-Avon to Gloucester, yet none of those has appeared on the Environment Agency’s flood risk maps. The Environment Agency seems to ignore both internal drainage and the reality of flooding, and it seems to me that its knowledge of real flood risk is a matter of question.

Will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate on how such agencies can be brought to account? I am thinking of Network Rail cutting down trees, of Natural England ignoring the stewardship of the countryside and now of the Environment Agency alarming and distressing very large numbers of my constituents. These people should be held to account by this House and be answerable to Ministers.

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Some people think that we have already had the debate, but I always enjoy the mellifluous tones of the right hon. Gentleman and his unfailing invocation of literary testimony. He enjoys it, even more than we do.

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My right hon. Friend raises an important issue for his constituency, and I understand his concern about unnecessary scaremongering. However, the chief executive of the Environment Agency does an excellent job; I would say that because I appointed her when I was Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. She is assiduous in ensuring that people are made aware of the risks from climate change.

Having ratified the Paris agreement on climate change in November 2016, reduced emissions faster than any other G7 nation and, in the past year, generated record levels of solar and wind energy, the United Kingdom is leading the world in tackling climate change, but we still have to do everything possible at home to ensure that we protect people and our environment from the impact of global climate change.

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New data shows that there have been nearly 5,500 hoax calls to the West Midlands ambulance service in the past five years. Hoax calls not only waste hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money, but put lives at risk due to delays in answering calls from patients who genuinely need help. Will the Leader of the House join me in condemning those who make hoax calls to our emergency services? Will she look for an opportunity to have a debate in Government time on the vital work that our ambulance services do and how we can all help to reduce the number of hoax calls for the future?

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The hon. Lady has raised a very serious issue. Hoax calls to any of our emergency services are absolutely to be condemned. She will no doubt be aware that ambulance services deal with more than 23,800 emergency calls every single day, and it is totally unacceptable for anyone to waste their time. The Government have introduced a significant increase in paramedic numbers to deal with the challenge facing our ambulance services, but I recommend that the hon. Lady seek an Adjournment debate so that she can discuss directly with Ministers what more can be done.

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To channel the spirit of my inner right hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Sir John Hayes), somebody once wrote:

“Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”

Will the Leader of the House congratulate the 82 Members of Parliament who attended the training programme on autism awareness last week? I was proud that they wanted to change themselves and take on board the learning and exercise. Will she encourage the remainder of our colleagues from all parties to attend the future training courses that are being run by the all-party group on autism and the National Autistic Society? More importantly, will she ensure that people with autism and their families are catered for in the Bill on the restoration and renewal of the House, so that this country can have a Parliament that is the most autism-aware and friendly destination in the world?

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I truly commend my right hon. Friend for her work on autism. It is excellent that that number of colleagues attended the autism training day, and I encourage as many Members as possible to get involved with that training. It is an absolutely key requirement of the restoration and renewal of this place that we do everything we can to make it accessible to those with particular disabilities or challenges, to make this the most person-friendly Parliament in the world when we come back to it in the 2030s.

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I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for next week, including the Backbench Business debates on Thursday.

I declare an interest: I am the chair of the all-party group on football supporters. In that light, I congratulate both Liverpool and Tottenham on their amazing comebacks over the past two nights. The television has been electric. Those were probably the best two comebacks since Lazarus all those years ago.

Meanwhile, in other parts of the country, football supporters are struggling with the dreadful ownership of their clubs. At Newcastle United, where I am a season ticket holder, we have Mike Ashley and have to put up with everything that he delivers to us. Across the river in my own constituency, we have the situation at Gateshead football club, where Dr Ranjan Varghese and his financial adviser Joe Cala have sacked all the staff, including all the playing staff apart from one who has a contract that runs to June. The club is now talking about leaving the ground, which is owned by the local authority, and moving somewhere else. May we have a debate in Government time about the football authorities’ fit-and-proper-person test for being a club director? Frankly, these people are turning football into a joke.

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I certainly join the hon. Gentleman in commending Liverpool and Spurs for their excellent results. It is great to see an all-English final. I hope that football clubs and managers all across the country listen to what the hon. Gentleman has said. It is vital that the excellent work done to promote sport, particularly football, throughout the country is properly managed and cared for. We have Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport questions on Thursday 23 May, and I recommend that the hon. Gentleman raise the issue then.

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Following on from the question from the hon. Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), I know that you, Sir, will of course have been absolutely amazed at what Liverpool did this week, but you will have been even more impressed by what happened last night, when Tottenham came back from an even more difficult situation.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the problems in football, but what has not been noticed is the long-term partnership between Tottenham Hotspur and the American National Football League. Two American football games will be played at the new Spurs ground next year, and this week the NFL announced that it will base its first academy at Barnet and Southgate College, where 80 youngsters will be taken in and given the opportunity for education and character development and to play American football. Premier league sides and the NFL are working together, so it is not all bad news. May we have a debate so that we can discuss these issues and in particular recognise the work that the NFL has done with its academy?

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for putting forward the good side of some of the work done by football clubs in collaboration with other football leagues. I will certainly take away his request for Government time for a debate. Members often raise their own pet sports—mine being rugby, of course, rather than football, and we all know yours, Mr Speaker—and I will certainly take away that suggestion. We regularly have debates on sport and the contribution that it can make to our national life, and it is right that we continue to consider these issues.

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A recent study of 17,000 police personnel across the UK found that 95% of officers and two thirds of operational police staff have been exposed to traumatic events, with 20% reporting symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder. Will the Government consider making a statement on this health crisis in our police service?

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The report that came out was extremely concerning, and this is an opportunity to pay tribute to the police for all the amazing work they do to keep us safe. The hon. Lady will know that, as part of our NHS long-term plan, mental health and support for mental health issues are a high priority, as is achieving parity of esteem between mental health and physical health. We will see much more support available in the years to come. Nevertheless, she is right to raise the issue. I encourage her to seek an Adjournment debate perhaps to discuss it directly with Ministers.

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As well as congratulating Liverpool and Spurs, I am sure that you will join me, Mr Speaker, in wishing Arsenal and Chelsea all the best for this evening so that we can have a full slate of English clubs in the European finals. On an even more serious point, may I ask for a debate on what one might almost call online economic terrorism against small businesses? Last week, I visited an excellent small business in my constituency that has been targeted over a certain matter, with a particular employee being the subject of that targeting. The business has been asked, or it has been told, that unless it fires that employee it will continue to be targeted. Fortunately, the threats are being taken seriously, but the young woman who owns and has grown that excellent business rightly wants me to raise this in a debate in the House of Commons. I am sure that it is not the only case that Members have come across.

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My hon. Friend raises a very concerning issue about unfair intimidation of a business over whatever the activity is of one of the employees. It is absolutely right that when enforcement is required the police support any business that is trying to defend an employee against unfair accusations. I do not know the precise details, but I would encourage him to speak directly to Ministers about what more can be done.

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I wanted to ask the Leader of the House to celebrate Europe Day with me, but I know that is dangerous on her territory. I have been campaigning for a long time about the poison coming through our air, polluting our air, poisoning our children and poisoning pregnant women. It is a disaster. Now we have realised—I asked every Secretary of State to introduce air quality monitors in every primary school, but I was rebuffed. May we have a debate on air pollution and what the Government can do about it before 2040, when 1 million people will have lost their lives to air pollution?

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First, I absolutely join the hon. Gentleman in celebrating Europe Day. European nations are our friends and neighbours and we have a strong and long-term relationship with them. He raises an important point about air pollution and is right to do so. I can tell him that air pollution has reduced significantly since 2010. Emissions of toxic nitrogen oxides have fallen by 29% and are at their lowest level since records began. Of course, we have to take action. We have put in place a £3.5 billion plan to reduce harmful emissions from road transport and, as he points out, we will end the sale of new conventional diesel and petrol cars and vans by 2040. Very importantly, we are implementing our new world-leading clean air strategy, and we will absolutely be tackling the very real concerns we all have about the quality of the air we are breathing.

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Yesterday, we wore a white rose for ovarian cancer. We know that it and cervical cancer can be killers, and the Government are doing a great job in trying to encourage more women to have smear tests. Does my right hon. Friend share my great pleasure at the research that came out just last month that showed that, when girls have had the HPV vaccination, that has led to a dramatic decrease in cervical cancer? Given the concerns about measles outbreaks across the world, may we please have a debate in this place on the importance of having vaccinations, because vaccinations save lives?

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I share my hon. Friend’s delight at the dramatically lower rate of cervical cancer as a result of vaccination. She will be aware that we had a debate last week on immunisation around the world and its importance in eradicating some of the world’s most terrible diseases, but she is right to raise again the importance of vaccination. All parents should look very carefully at NHS advice rather than some of the absolute misinformation that can be found online.

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Yesterday afternoon, I received an email from Clydesdale Bank telling me that, without so much as a by your leave, it is going to shut its branch in Brora in Sutherland. This is yet another addition to a sickening litany of bank closures across the highlands. I know that I speak for many right hon. and hon. Members across the House when I say that we cannot go on like this; I cannot tell the House how upset my constituents are. Would the Leader of the House consider very strongly the possibility of a debate on the issue in this Chamber, because if we do not take action—if we do not try to do something—we will let down our constituents in every part of the UK?

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I am well aware of the concern of many Members when there are bank branch closures in their constituencies; it is an issue for many people. The hon. Gentleman will also appreciate that banks are commercial businesses and the way that people are choosing to manage their financial affairs is changing. One step that the Government have taken is the access to banking protocol, which banks will consult broadly to ensure that they are not leaving people literally in the lurch. The work that the Government have done on investing in the post office network has been really important, resulting in 99.7% of the UK population now living within three miles of a post office branch.

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Recent research has indicated that, if British households switched from eating meat for just one day a week, it would result in a reduction in carbon emissions equivalent to taking 16 million cars off our roads. Can we have a statement from the Secretary of State for the Environment on the importance of a healthier environment and healthier diets through less meat consumption?

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As my hon. Friend knows, we are committed to ensuring that there is a fair balance between farming and climate change, which is why mitigating climate change is explicitly listed among the public goods in our Agriculture Bill. However, he should also be aware that, although food choices can have an impact on greenhouse gas emissions, at the same time well-managed livestock farming provides environmental benefits such as supporting biodiversity; importantly, protecting the character of the countryside; and, of course, generating important income for rural communities.

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Last night I received a Facebook message from somebody I know. I just want to read out a little part of it, if I may: “Dear Paula, I was wondering if you have had any experience of people suddenly having employment and support allowance being suddenly stopped. I get ESA. I’ve been in the support group for a while due to long-term conditions with my arm, bowel and epilepsy following being attacked by a patient at the hospital trust where I worked. I get PIP too. I had a work capability assessment a few weeks ago. Yesterday I got a letter to say it’s been stopped and I’m okay to work. I’m beside myself. I can’t sleep. I have always, for years, scored 15 points and now I’ve got zero. But nothing has changed.” Sometimes I honestly wonder how this wicked Government can do this to people. This is someone working in our NHS who was attacked, and now their benefits have been stopped; she is suffering mentally and physically. May we have a debate on how we can bring this terrible situation to an end and treat people with the dignity that they deserve?

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The hon. Lady is raising a very serious constituency issue. As ever, I will be happy to raise that particular case if she writes to me after business questions. However, I have to make it absolutely clear that, since the personal independence payment was introduced in 2013, it has been there to ensure that people had more control over their own lives. Four million decisions have been taken and almost nine in every 10 PIP claimants are satisfied with the overall experience. What the Government are seeking to do is to provide as much support as possible, as flexibly as possible, to people who need personal independence payments. Obviously the hon. Lady is talking about a particular issue that must be looked at, and hon. Members often do raise particular issues, but we must not throw out the baby with the bathwater. The whole premise of the Government, in looking at benefits for people who need them, is to provide support for those people.

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It has been apparent for some months that it was almost certain that we would be fighting the European elections, but yesterday the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster confirmed it. As a result of the late confirmation, a large number of local authorities have failed to send out forms or adequately ensure that the millions of European Union citizens in this country entitled to vote will be able to vote on 23 May. May I draw the Leader of the House’s attention to early-day motion 2357, tabled by myself and Members cross-party?

[That this House calls on the Government to take immediate steps to ensure that all EU citizens in the UK who wish to vote in the EU elections are able to do so by making the additional form that EU citizens need to complete in order to declare they are not voting in another EU member state - the UC1 form - available at all polling stations on 23 May 2019, by instructing all local authorities to write by first-class mail to EU citizens who miss the 7 May deadline to inform them they will still be able to vote by filling in a UC1 form which will be available at polling stations and by directing local authorities to send polling cards to all EU citizens and not just those who have completed and returned the UC1 form.]

The EDM asks the Government to instruct local authorities to allow EU nationals to have the polling card sent to them, whether or not they have filled in the additional form, the UC1 form, and to have copies of that form available in polling stations, so that they can sign it there and confirm that they are voting only in this country and not in another European country, thereby enabling EU nationals legally resident here, with families here and working here, to vote in these European elections.

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The hon. Gentleman is asking me a specific policy question that is clearly one for the Cabinet Office and/or for the Brexit Department. I would encourage him perhaps to lay a named question so that he can get a direct answer to his specific request.

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One year ago this week, Scottish musician Scott Hutchison died by suicide. Scott had been very open in talking about his mental health struggles, and through that, and his music and lyrics, he brought comfort and support to people all across the world. This week, in his honour, his family launched a charity called Tiny Changes to support young people with their mental health. We know that young people are struggling more and more often with their mental health, and with the mounting pressures of modern life, it is unlikely to get any better. So will the Leader of the House join me in paying tribute to Scott, his work and his life and in thanking his family for their work? Could we please have a debate in Government time on young people’s mental health, so that we can come together and discuss this very important issue? Together we can make tiny changes.

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I commend the hon. Lady for raising Scott’s story and I pay tribute to him and his family. It is just the most terrible thing when anyone takes their own life. I can tell her—I see she is quite moved—that a very good friend of my son also committed suicide, and he will also be taking action to try to raise money for those families who are struggling to ever get over this. The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise this issue. The Government have the very first suicide prevention strategy, and we have many different measures that are being considered right across Departments to do what we can to try to prevent more suicides. She is absolutely right to raise this and I will see what can be done about a debate.

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I call Dr Julian Lewis.

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Thank you, Mr Speaker. I was not expecting to be called until the end, because I would like to raise with the Leader of the House the situation at Carriage Gates, which is not strictly a matter of the business of the House. I am concerned that the incessant loud noise, which is being made not in the context of specific demonstrations but at varying times, is taking us back to a situation prior to 2010. Not only does it cause distraction, particularly in Westminster Hall, but, much more importantly, it has a huge effect on the police who are guarding the gates and have to be on the alert, as we know only too well, against attack. There are byelaws about this. I do not care which side of the EU argument the shouters are on—probably both sides—but it needs to be stopped. I wonder what the Leader of the House can do about this matter because one of her predecessors, Sir George Young, proved very effective in tackling it with Westminster City Council.

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Yes, that was in 2012—I remember it well.

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I regularly meet the director of security in the Palace and the Director General to talk about the challenges we face when going about our everyday work. I have raised the demonstrations going on outside, but not specifically the noise. Since my right hon. Friend makes that point, I will undertake to raise that issue the next time I speak to the DG.

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I have had two yellowing newspaper front pages pinned to the wall in my office for nearly two years now, with headlines saying, “Five years for monsters who harm animals” and “Five years’ jail for cruelty to pets”. A Bill was published and then withdrawn. My constituents and thousands of people around the country have run a fantastic campaign to ensure that those who are cruel to animals are punished with severe sentences, which they are not at the moment. Where is the Bill? No more talk—we must have it in Parliament.

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I completely agree with the hon. Lady that cruelty to animals is utterly unacceptable. We are a nation of animal lovers and want to see perpetrators brought to justice. She is right that it is the Government’s policy to take action to increase maximum sentences for animal cruelty, and that Bill will be brought forward in an animals Bill in the next Session. In the meantime, the Government have improved animal welfare through many different measures, such as making CCTV mandatory in slaughterhouses. We are bringing forward a ban on the use of wild animals in travelling circuses. We have banned online and third-party puppy sales, and our world- leading ivory sales ban demonstrates our commitment to do everything we can to protect animals around the world.

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I am sure the Leader of the House recognises the importance of grassroots sports in promoting physical and mental wellbeing in our communities. Will she take the time to recognise the great work that the parkrun project does across all parts of the UK, and particularly in my constituency? The Springburn parkrun, which was set up in the wake of the Commonwealth games in Glasgow with some of the legacy funding, is celebrating its fifth anniversary this Saturday. Every week, people can go along at half-past 9 to run, and it is not against each other, but to improve their fitness and their time each week. Will she recognise that great initiative?

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The hon. Gentleman is right to raise the value of community initiatives such as parkrun in keeping people fit and motivated, with a bit of social company. It is a fantastic thing to do, and I congratulate his constituents on their work.

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My 16-year-old constituent, Jackson Shepherd, has severe special needs, including learning disabilities, very limited communication and an inability to attend to daily needs such as washing and clothing himself. He is a student at the fantastic Riverbrae School for those with additional and complex support needs. However, his dad has been told that Jackson cannot claim universal credit because he cannot undergo a work capability assessment, as he is a student and therefore cannot work. Can we have a debate on this Government’s policies on supporting young adults with additional and complex needs, to ensure that people like Jackson do not fall through the net?

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The hon. Gentleman raises an important constituency issue, as he often does. I encourage him to raise it directly with Ministers, and if he wants to write to me after business questions, I can take it up on his behalf. He will be aware that the Government are determined to ensure that people with disabilities—in particular, young people—are able to lead fulfilling lives and achieve as much as possible. To that end, we are spending £55 billion a year on benefits to support disabled people and people with health conditions, which is up by more than £10 billion in real terms since 2010.

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The Ministry of Justice’s own policy framework states that all prisons should develop specific multidisciplinary pathways for pregnant and post-natal women. Birth Companions, a maternity rights charity, has raised concerns that current practices are falling short. Please may we have a debate in Government time to discuss maternity services before, during and post sentencing so that we can better improve life chances for mothers and their children?

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The hon. Lady raises a very important issue, and one that is dear to my heart. It is certainly vital in the perinatal period that women, their babies and their partners are given the support they need to get every baby off to the best start in life. I am not aware of exactly where Government policy is on this, but I encourage the hon. Lady to seek an Adjournment debate so that she can raise the issue with a Minister.

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Even if the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) had momentarily forgotten the brilliance of his inquiry, the rest of us, thankfully, had not.

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The Government have failed to increase stamp duty on purchases of properties by overseas buyers by 3%, instead cutting it back to 1%, which has resulted in less money being available for tackling homelessness. This is not just a rough deal on the homeless who have to sleep rough, but a rough deal on young people who want to buy houses that are forced out of reach by house price inflation. May we have a debate in Government time on the Government’s failure to join up housing policy, and its impact on our constituents and people who are facing homelessness?

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The hon. Gentleman started off by saying something about a change in Government policy that I did not fully follow. However, I draw his attention to Treasury questions on 21 May, when he might like to raise his specific question. I can say to him that the Government are doing everything possible to eradicate homelessness. Our Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 means that everyone, not just those who are a priority, can get more support before becoming homeless, which is absolutely vital. There is also our rough sleeping initiative, working with local authorities with the highest levels of rough sleeping, which is demonstrating a 19% decrease in rough sleeping across the areas where it is in place. The Government are absolutely committed to tackling this, but he should raise his specific point at Treasury questions.

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The Leader of the House has already talked about climate change this morning, and the Environment Agency has produced a report today about flooding. With rising sea levels and river flooding, 55,000 houses in the Humber estuary are at risk. May we have a debate about what new opportunities there are in tackling climate change and flood defences, and where we see it as an opportunity, not a burden, to develop the new industries that the Environment Agency says we need? For example, there is the proposal for a Hull lagoon from the Humber bridge to the port, which is championed by local businesses led by Tim Rix and which would help to protect the Humber estuary and regenerate the city of Hull.

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As ever, I find myself wholeheartedly agreeing with the hon. Lady on a very significant issue. I have visited some of the most at-risk places, such as York, where the new flood defences have created jobs and opportunities for local businesses while at the same time protecting the city centre. I absolutely agree that we should be looking at opportunities to do more to think creatively about how we can protect ourselves from the risk of flooding. We obviously had Environment, Food and Rural Affairs questions this morning, so I hope she was able to put her idea to Ministers then. If not, she might like to seek an Adjournment debate.

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The Gillen review of the changes required to procedures and laws on serious sexual offences in Northern Ireland has just been published this morning. It contains over 200 important and radical recommendations that would bring our laws in Northern Ireland up to speed, and indeed get the productivity of getting such offences properly tried in Northern Ireland up to speed. What will be done? Can the Government arrange for those procedures to be implemented in the absence of devolution in Northern Ireland, and ensure that nothing is allowed to delay the implementation of the law changes that are required?

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The hon. Gentleman will know that it is absolutely the Government’s aim to bring the main political parties in Northern Ireland together, with the UK and Irish Governments, to bring back a fully devolved Administration in Northern Ireland. That is an absolute priority for the UK Government. In the meantime, we obviously continue to talk about any essential measures that need to be taken. Ultimately, we want to see the talks that commenced on 7 May reach a fruitful re-establishment of the Northern Ireland Executive.

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Earlier this week I announced that I am pregnant with my second child. As both my husband and I are MPs, the decision to have another baby was made possible only because of the introduction of proxy voting, and I wish to place on record my thanks to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), to the Leader of the House, and to you, Mr Speaker, for pushing that forward. Parliament has made much progress in recent years, but late-night votes and an archaic voting system that can mean MPs walking around in circles through the Lobbies for several hours on end can be off-putting. May we have a debate in Government time about how we can make Parliament a more accessible workplace?

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I am delighted—congratulations to the hon. Lady and her husband. That is fantastic news, and we all share in wishing her a fabulous pregnancy with no sickness, tiredness, or anything of that sort. She is right to say that proxy voting was an important step as many more new families come to this place, and it is right for the diversity of the House of Commons that many more young parents are coming here as representatives. I commit to doing everything I can to make this place more family friendly. The issues of how we vote and the late timing are matters for the House, and I encourage the hon. Lady to seek either a Westminster Hall debate or a Backbench Business Committee debate so that all hon. Members can share their views. Surprisingly to me and to her, not all hon. Members share our view about making this place family friendly.

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The hon. Lady will certainly get the Westminster Hall debate, and she should have a word with her hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) about the Backbench Business Committee debate.

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Only yesterday, Clydesdale Bank announced that it would close its branch in Largs. That is the latest blow to my constituency, as yet another bank abandons our communities, leading to increasing concerns about financial exclusion, and all the implications that that poses for consumers, small businesses and the future of our high streets. May we have a debate in Government time about the social responsibility of banks, and a proper investigation into banking hubs for every community?

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I am sorry that the hon. Lady is the second Scottish parliamentarian to raise a bank branch closure in their constituency during business questions, and I agree that bank closures are difficult for our constituents. She will be aware of the access to banking arrangements, under which banks must consult and demonstrate that there is no commercial value to be had from a bank branch, and that alternative arrangements are in place to suit the needs of the local community. In many cases those arrangements are provided by local post offices. The Government have invested £2.3 billion in the post office network since 2010, meaning that post offices are open for an extra 200,000 hours a week, with more than 4,000 opening on Sunday. Nevertheless, the hon. Lady makes an important point, and I encourage her to seek an Adjournment debate on the issue.

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I call Chris Bryant.

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You are generous, Mr Speaker, especially because I am a naughty boy and was not entirely in the Chamber when the business question started. I am grateful to you—thank you very much. Would the Leader of the House care to come and visit me in my constituency and perhaps stay overnight? [Hon. Members: “Oooh!”] We have a spare room—it’s fine. She could then see the Cory Band, which is indisputably the best brass band in the country. It won the British open championships last year—it is the reigning champion—and last week it won the European brass band championship. While in the Rhondda the right hon. Lady could also come to the Rhondda Arts Festival Treorchy—RAFT—and see all the great acts that will be put on in the last week of June.

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What can I say, other than that you were clearly tricked by the hon. Gentleman sneaking in under the radar, Mr Speaker? I hope you are not losing your touch. I find that invitation almost entirely irresistible, and I would be delighted to visit the Rhondda. May I commend the hon. Gentleman’s local brass band, the Cory Band, and congratulate it on its superb achievements?

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The Offensive Weapons Bill seeks to strengthen legislation on weapons such as knives. The Bill is important, but friends in the Sikh community were concerned that it would impinge on their freedom to carry the kirpan, or ceremonial sword, which is an ingrained part of their religious practice similar to wearing a cross. There must always be a balance between freedom and public safety. I am delighted that the Government have considered that balance and amended the Bill to accommodate Sikh religious freedom. That positive result highlights the importance of considering freedom of religion or belief in all Government policy. Will the Leader of the House join me and others in welcoming that decision?

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I am delighted the hon. Gentleman raises this issue. He is absolutely right to point out that the Government fully support religious freedom. The Government were pleased that the issue of wearing the kirpan was brought to their attention, so that the Offensive Weapons Bill could be amended and the protection of religious freedoms of the Sikh community ensured.

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Those who claim asylum in the UK as third country applicants are currently waiting up to two or even three years for a decision. The Guardian reported last week that the third country unit was massively overworked and understaffed. May we please have a debate on the very real human cost of Home Office understaffing for those who rely on these decisions?

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The hon. Lady raises a very serious issue, and I encourage her to raise it directly with Ministers. She will be aware that the UK has a very generous commitment to helping refugees who seek asylum. She raises the effectiveness of the arrangements around administering those cases. It is right that she should take that up directly with the Home Office. If she wants to write to me after business questions, I can raise it with them on her behalf.

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May we please have a debate on the application of section 4 of the Ministerial and other Pensions and Salaries Act 1991? I understand that Ministers come and go, and that the Government are in a permanent state of reshuffle, but I personally do not think it is right that those who are sacked or forced to resign because of serious allegations get a five-figure pay-off funded by the taxpayer.

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The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. I encourage him to raise it in a written question, so he can get a specific answer to his point.

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Earlier this week, I received a letter from Father Liam McMahon, who is the parish priest at St Michael’s on Gallowgate in Parkhead. Like many other ministers and those in the clergy, he is concerned about the changes to tier 5 religious worker visas. May we have a debate in Government time about early-day motion 2362, in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady), to ensure that the Home Office reverses these retrograde plans that will disproportionately impact parishes right across the United Kingdom?

[That this House notes with concern the decision of the Home Office to remove Ministers of Religion from the eligibility criteria for tier 5 entry visas to the UK; further notes the widespread disappointment about this decision felt by Churches and other faith communities which have previously been able to invite religious ministers from overseas, and particularly developing countries, to provide supply cover for religious services over the coming months; believes this will have a negative effect on the ability of priests and ministers in the UK to take a break over the summer, on faith communities who may experience reduced worship schedules, and on the supply ministers who have used the opportunity to gain experience in the UK and earn some additional income before returning to their home country; and calls on the Home Secretary to meet with representatives of faith communities to listen to their concerns and urgently review his Department’s policy decision.]

I know the Leader of the House is sympathetic and a practising Christian. Will she be a voice in Government to U-turn on this ridiculous decision by the Home Office that will affect parishes all across these islands?

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This issue has been raised a couple of times. Of course, we want to be able to facilitate visits by religious leaders around the world to talk to parishes here in the United Kingdom. There are arrangements—I am struggling to remember, but I think they can apply under tier 2 visa arrangements and that there are some pauses in place to ensure that those visas remain temporary. I recommend that the hon. Gentleman seeks an Adjournment debate, so that Ministers can set out for him precisely how visitors can apply for visas.

Buildings with ACM Cladding

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With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the remediation of private sector residential buildings with aluminium composite material cladding.

In the wake of the tragic Grenfell Tower fire, the Government acted urgently to address the serious fire and public safety risks exposed by the tragedy. Throughout, the safety of residents has remained our priority. We have from the outset sought expert advice, which together with our own testing programme has highlighted the unparalleled fire risk posed by ACM cladding of the type believed to be present on Grenfell Tower. The Government are clear that the type of ACM cladding believed to be on Grenfell Tower, and present on hundreds of other high-rise buildings, is not safe. This type of ACM is exceptional owing to the high risk it poses as an accelerant of fire. It did not comply with building regulations and should never have been put up.

For many years, building regulations have included a requirement that exterior walls be constructed to resist the spread of fire. Since the Grenfell tragedy, we have taken action to put that beyond doubt. We have amended the law to explicitly ban combustible materials from use in the exterior walls of all high-rise residential buildings, as well as in hospitals, residential care premises, dormitories in boarding schools, and student accommodation over 18 metres. That ban applies to all new buildings in these categories and to those buildings when major works to the exterior walls take place. The long-standing requirement that exterior walls should adequately resist the spread of fire continues to apply to all other high-rise buildings, including commercial buildings, being developed or undergoing major works to exterior walls.

With the support of local authorities and fire and rescue services, we have identified a total of 433 high-rise residential and other buildings with unsafe ACM cladding. All these buildings have been assessed by fire and rescue services and interim safety measures are in place where necessary, and these measures are kept under review by fire and rescue services, but we recognise that residents will have true peace of mind only when unsafe cladding has been removed and replaced with safe materials. In those buildings owned by local authorities and housing associations, we are making strong progress. We have made £400 million available to pay for the remediation of ACM cladding, and remediation has started or been completed in 87% of social sector buildings, with plans and commitments in place to remediate all remaining buildings.

We have also seen some progress in the private sector. Some building owners have acted swiftly and responsibly to put plans in place for full remediation of the cladding on their buildings and committed to protecting leaseholders from bearing the costs. This progress has been supported by the work of a remediation taskforce chaired by Ministers. In addition, where necessary, the Government are supporting local authorities to use their enforcement powers to ensure that building owners take the required action.

That said, too many building owners have failed to take responsibility. Many building owners have been too slow to co-operate to enable the prompt identification of buildings with unsafe ACM cladding and have since dragged their feet in planning for remediation. The result is that, almost two years on from the Grenfell tragedy, an unacceptable number of residents are still living in buildings that, while benefitting from additional safety measures in the interim, will not be remediated fully within an acceptable timescale.

Moreover, many leaseholders face unfair, and often substantial, costs. The Government believe this to be completely unacceptable. Leaseholders find themselves in this position through no fault of their own, and this is not morally defensible. The Housing Minister, my officials and I have all met residents affected by these issues and heard their personal concerns. We all appreciate their anguish and we pay tribute to their resilience and strength. I also want to acknowledge the continued work of Grenfell United, the UK Cladding Action Group and others. Many people told us they lived in constant fear—fear for the safety of their home; fear of the possibility of having to find tens of thousands of pounds for remediation; fear that they could no longer sell their properties and may have to forfeit them if costs are not met.

Where building owners have failed to step up, it is now imperative that the Government act. We must ensure the long-term safety of the people living in these buildings. The Government are therefore announcing today a new fund to unblock progress in remediating private sector high-rise residential buildings. First and foremost, this fund is about public safety. It will allow remediation to happen quickly, restore peace of mind and allow residents living in these blocks to get on with their lives. It will also protect leaseholders from bearing the cost. Building owners or those responsible for fire safety should prioritise getting on with the work necessary to make their buildings permanently safe. The new fund, which is estimated at £200 million, will cover the full cost of remediating the unsafe ACM cladding systems in privately owned high-rise residential buildings. This funding is being provided entirely for the benefit of the leaseholders in the buildings.

Important reforms of leasehold and implementing the Hackitt review’s recommendations on the safety of high-rise residential buildings are already in train. I will update the House on implementation in the coming weeks. When the new system is in place, it will help to prevent leaseholders from being confronted with unaffordable one-off charges.

Several developers and freeholders have already agreed to fund the costs of remediation and not to pass them on to leaseholders. Many of them have already agreed to maintain their commitment. The owners or developers who have made those commitments include Taylor Wimpey, Legal & General, Mace Group, Lendlease, Barratt Developments and Aberdeen Standard Investments. I commend them for the responsible and moral position that they have taken.

The fund does not absolve industry from taking responsibility for the failures that led to the ACM being wrongly put on buildings. As a condition of funding, we will stipulate that building owners must pursue warranty and insurance claims and any appropriate action against those responsible for putting unsafe cladding on the buildings, with moneys to be repaid to the Government.

We will write to all potential fund applicants by the end of next week to start engaging them in preparation for formal applications. We will also make funding conditional on the building owner or responsible person agreeing a contract to start remediation works within a set period. We will provide further details on the application process; I urge those who intend to apply to start developing ACM remediation proposals and costings so that applications can be made and processed promptly.

Everyone has a right to feel safe in their home. We want to see building owners acting to ensure that unsafe ACM is replaced without delay. That is why we are taking this exceptional step today. I commend this statement to the House.

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I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. His announcement is welcome and needed; most important, it should start to relieve the worry of the thousands of people who live day and night in a high-rise block that they know is unsafe. But why on earth have they had to wait for nearly two years? For two years they have had their lives on hold. How long will the thousands more who live in tower blocks with suspect non-ACM cladding have to wait for Government action?

Like the Secretary of State, I pay tribute to those who, with Labour, have campaigned hard for the Government to act: Grenfell United, the UK Cladding Action Group, the Manchester Cladiators, Inside Housing and hon. Members on both sides of the House. But after the solemn pledges made by the Prime Minister and other Ministers in the aftermath of the terrible Grenfell Tower fire, who would have thought that nearly two years later there would still be Grenfell residents in hotels and temporary accommodation, not permanent homes; that Grenfell-type cladding would still not have been replaced in almost eight in 10 blocks; that in over half of them, no work would have started at all; and that no comprehensive testing programme would have been done on the estimated 1,700 high-rise or high-risk buildings with dangerous non-ACM cladding? The Secretary of State says that the Government acted urgently. The sorry truth is that in the face of these post-Grenfell problems, the Government have been frozen like a rabbit in the headlights—too weak and too slow to act at every stage and on every front.

On the detail of the Secretary of State’s announcement, is the £200 million new money from the Treasury to his Department, or will it be taken from other housing programmes? Is the fund simply a bail-out for block owners and developers who will not do their duty to replace dangerous cladding? How will he ensure that they pursue liability claims and repay the public purse? Will he consider emergency legislation to make block owners actually do this work and pay for it?

Is the fund enough? Per block, it seems to be only half the funding announced last year for the social sector. The Secretary of State says that the fund will cover the costs for 170 privately owned blocks that have Grenfell-style ACM cladding. Will he fund the costs for other blocks that are found to have similarly dangerous non-ACM cladding?

I have to tell the Secretary of State that warm words and fresh funding will mean very little to worried residents unless they know that the dangerous cladding on all blocks will be removed and replaced, and that as leaseholders they will not pick up the bill. Will he now set a hard deadline for that work, so that every block and every resident can be made safe?

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I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support for our announcement. It is right that the Government have acted, but I underline the fact that the primary responsibility rests and rested with the building owners and with those responsible. We have now stepped in because of the failures we have seen in the private sector, although we acknowledge and recognise the many building owners and developers who have done the right thing by stepping up and agreeing to provide or maintain funding to address the need for remediation.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about urgency and timing. We did act with urgency in terms of the advice given. Indeed, I indicated in my statement the challenges in identifying some of the blocks affected and the work that was done at pace with local authorities. In some cases, local authorities had to take enforcement action to enable us to survey and identify those buildings, working with the relevant fire authorities, to which I pay tribute for their analysis and advice, and with the expert panel that was set up to advise Ministers.

The right hon. Gentleman asked several questions about the nature and manner of my announcement. One question was about non-ACM cladding systems. He will know that a testing programme is under way to assess non-ACM systems. That work is already happening. Advice was provided by the expert panel in December 2017 and updated in December 2018. That has been the focus, but clearly we will act on information and evidence provided as a consequence of the further testing programme. However, I urge the right hon. Gentleman to be careful not to prejudge the outcome or the results that we expect in the weeks ahead.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about funding. We intend to manage funding for the policy through our existing significant programme budgets. To put that in context, if the full amount were used, it would represent something like 3% of this year’s financial programming. We will keep the House updated through the supplementary estimate. The size of the new fund is informed by the public sector fund’s utilisation and drawdown, by the financial support that has been provided by some of the developers and builders, and by the insurance that has been activated for a number of the buildings.

With respect to the follow-through, clearly we want action to be taken to continue with liability claims. That process will be managed as we work with each of the building owners. As I indicated, we intend to start the process by the end of next week, by writing to the owners of the buildings that have been identified based on the information that we have.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman asked about legislation. We have supported local authorities in their enforcement activity through the joint inspection team. We remain ready, willing and able to support local authorities in the enforcement activity that they may determine to be necessary, and we are clarifying rules, regulations and guidance to assist them in that regard.

Let me say to the right hon. Gentleman, however, that I am very clear about the fact that the current regulatory regime needs further significant change. That is why the Hackitt review was undertaken in the first place. In her report, Dame Judith Hackitt presented a very stark picture of the need for responsibility, for tougher sanctions and, indeed, for different regulatory arrangements. I propose to update the House on next steps in the coming weeks, because I hear that message very clearly, and I intend to act.

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I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, and thank both him and the Minister of State. I know that achieving this result has required significant legal complexities to be overcome, and I appreciate the fact that the Government have listened. This will come as a great relief to the residents of Northpoint, in my constituency, who, along with many others, have suffered stress as well as financial loss.

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the fund will cover all cladding systems which include ACM cladding? As he knows, some cladding systems consist of a mixture of ACM and other forms of cladding, and it is obviously right for all systems to be subject to this protection.

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I commend my hon. Friend for his strenuous efforts on behalf of his constituents in relation to Northpoint. I understand the issue that he has highlighted. The fund is intended to provide capital support for the removal of ACM cladding systems, including insulation, as well as the removal and disposal of existing cladding, replacement materials and labour. As part of the process of writing to building owners and of the subsequent work, we will specify that in greater detail to give reassurance.

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I thank the Secretary of State for giving me advance sight of his statement. Any announcement of help for those affected by the Grenfell tragedy, directly or indirectly, must of course be welcomed, but as the second anniversary of the tragedy approaches, it is incredible that the public and MPs are still having to push for that help.

The first thing to establish is whether the fund will be enough to help those affected. Can the Secretary of State confirm that the £200 million that has been released will pay for work on all private towers, or are the reports that it will not be enough correct?

The replacement work has been described by the UK Cladding Action Group as a “cladding lottery”, because it only covers ACM panels of the type that helped to spread the fire at Grenfell. Combustible non-ACM cladding, and other fire safety problems such as faulty or missing fire breaks in wall systems, will not be covered. What additional action can the Secretary of State promise affected residents to ensure that these safety measures are completed in a full and joined-up manner?

People have reported losing their life savings on interim measures, being forced to delay starting a family because of the financial uncertainty or turning to drink or drugs, along with serious mental health issues. Does the Secretary of State believe it is acceptable that freeholders and developers have been allowed to simply refuse to pay to make their buildings safe, and does he believe that if changes to the law are required to force them to take their responsibilities seriously, the Government will give that serious consideration?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for welcoming my announcement. I should, for his sake, make it clear that this applies only in England, because, as he knows, responsibility for housing policy and building regulations is a devolved matter.

I have already responded to some of the points that the hon. Gentleman has raised. As I have said, the £200 million represents an estimate of the cost, based on the existing experience of remediation—some of the work that has already been done—and taking account of instances in which developers, or insurance, are already in place. It is there to provide capital support. It is because of the need for urgency that we are taking steps to ensure, as a priority, that there is no need to rely on interim measures, because of both the nature and the cost of such measures.

I absolutely endorse the hon. Gentleman’s broader point about the need for developers and freeholders to stand up and do the right thing: I have stated that very plainly on a number of occasions, and I am hugely frustrated by the action—of lack of action—on the part of a number of those involved. He asked about changes in the law; that issue clearly flows from the Hackitt review, and, as I have said, I will update the House.

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I welcome the statement, but does the Secretary of State share my concern about the difficulties that the Department has had to surmount in order to be in a position to make such a statement, and about the fact that it was necessary in the first place? As he has said, many in the industry have acted responsibly and swiftly, but too many have not. May I encourage him, as he finishes—quickly, I hope—the work involved in responding to the Hackitt review, to apply that learning—the experience of just how difficult it has been for him and his Department to put this programme together—and to reflect in his response the fact that many residents have the same issues, day in day out, with the owners of the buildings in which they live? We should all bear in mind that while those owners are quite happy to take the gains that come with owning a building, they must also take the responsibilities that it brings.

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I entirely agree with the points that my right hon. Friend has made. I think that she senses my real frustration and, indeed, anger at some of the practice that I have seen. We are taking this exceptional step because of the nature of the material with which we are dealing, but it has also shone a light on some of the wrongful and damaging practice that is out there, including practice in the construction industry. We are continuing to pursue those issues, and will follow through on them in our response to the Hackitt review.

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I very much welcome the money, although I have to say that the Department‘s idea of urgency is not quite the same as mine, two years after Grenfell. I think that the Secretary of State was wise to make his statement just under the wire, before the second anniversary of that disaster. If he will be writing to owners in the next week or so, he presumably already knows what steps he will be asking them to take to comply with the requirement to seek compensation from those who installed the cladding when that is possible. If he knows what steps will be taken, will he share that information with us, and will he also tell us who will decide whether those steps are sufficient?

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In the case of an individual building, it will be up to the owners to set out what steps will be required. Obviously we will inform them of the nature of the information that we require about, for instance, assessments and the various bids and tenders that we would expect to have been undertaken. The differences between individual buildings, the nature of the system and the extent of the ACM cladding on each building have been very much in our minds in relation to the operation of the public sector fund, and we will apply that experience to the operation of the new scheme. However, I understand that sense of the need for continued pace, given that where substantial works are required, planning permissions will be needed, and given the nature of some of the construction work that will be necessary. It is precisely that work in which we will be engaged.

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I think my right hon. Friend is properly fulfilling the words that he uttered on 30 April 2018, when he said that leaseholders would not be left in the lurch. Members in all parts of the House will be grateful for that.

We fully understand why the Minister of State was unable to make a statement of this kind yesterday, at a meeting which was chaired by the hon. Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Jim Fitzpatrick) and attended by members of the UK Cladding Action Group and many other experts. I hope that what was said at that meeting will be passed on to the Department, because it is important for us to continue to make progress, and we are grateful for the lead that my right hon. Friend has given.

Let me also say to my right hon. Friend that it is vital that he, and his permanent secretary, acknowledge the role of those at Leasehold Knowledge Partnership, who were the first to identify the fact that there was no simple solution. It was they who caused the Government to ask the Law Commission to look into the problems of leasehold. I ask him to ensure that his officials and LEASE, the Government’s Leasehold Advisory Service, respect Martin Boyd and Sebastian O’Kelly, without whom no Member of Parliament would have been able to get as far as we have, together, across the Chamber.

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My hon. Friend rightly points out the contribution of many people in the steps that have been taken and in providing the essential technical and other information to inform and assist in the taking of robust action where required, and we will continue to engage in that. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend: he has been a passionate advocate of the rights of leaseholders and others across the House, and that pressure and contribution has helped to make a difference.

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This bail-out for unscrupulous freeholders and developers is welcome, especially to leaseholders like mine at New Providence Wharf, so I thank the Secretary of State and his ministerial colleagues for the money, as will the UK Cladding Action Group, the Leasehold Knowledge Partnership mentioned by the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) and Inside Housing—this statement probably guarantees the Secretary of State a splash front page in its next issue, which can’t do him any harm. The steps the Government have had to take show the weaknesses of the unregulated leasehold sector. Can the Secretary of State confirm that his Department will redouble its efforts to fulfil the promises of comprehensive leasehold reform as soon as possible?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and for his campaigning on these issues of fire safety, as well as on leasehold, over many months. Regardless of whether I look forward to coverage in Inside Housing, I recognise the work it has done in assisting and helping to shine a light on a number of these factors. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there are programmes of work by the Law Society and other agencies, and the Law Commission’s overarching work on leasehold is a separate programme that we intend to continue. We will continue to engage with the hon. Gentleman and others in relation to progress on that.

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Will the Secretary of State explain how this welcome scheme will work in a couple of respects? Is the list of 433 vulnerable buildings going to be published? How will those who might be living in a building where no work has been done be able to access the scheme, and will any of the money be recoverable from the freeholders who refuse to do the work of their own volition?

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We are aware of all the survey work and other steps that local government has been involved in, and I pay tribute to local councillors for their active engagement, alongside fire authorities, in enabling us to arrive at this position. As I have said, we want claims to continue to be made against those with responsibility and liability, whether through warranty claims or insurance, and to see that moneys are repaid. There are 175 private residential buildings and 159 social residential buildings where ACM cladding has been identified, and steps and interim measures will be in place to give assurance now. We will continue to engage with the authorities and building owners as we make progress in this regard.

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Last March six buildings in the centre of Leeds were identified as still having dangerous ACM cladding. The freeholders of some of them have announced they would meet the cost, but for constituents of mine who live in buildings where that commitment has not been given, today’s announcement will be very welcome, and I thank the Secretary of State for it. Can he clarify the following two points? First, will freeholders who have said they will pay for the work but have not begun it be eligible for the funding? Secondly, as the Secretary of State will be aware, many people have for months and months been paying the cost of waking watches, and those who have been most heavily penalised are those with freeholders who have not lived up to their responsibilities, which is why they are still paying for a waking watch. Who does the Secretary of State think ought to meet those costs? In my view, speaking on behalf of my constituents it should not be them, as this is an unjustifiable expense which is not their fault.

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The right hon. Gentleman will have heard me say previously where I think moral responsibility lies. It should not be leaseholders who pick up the cost, which is why I am making the statement today in relation to the capital costs and making progress so that waking watches and other interim measures are minimised and foreshortened. On the question of freeholders, in essence the scheme is available to all private sector buildings that fall within its remit, potentially including those where commitments have already been made, but, as I have said, a number of those developers and building owners have said that, notwithstanding that, they maintain their commitment and we are trying to keep this simple and make sure we meet all legal requirements so that there is swift progress.

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I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and his work and that of the Minister for Housing in securing this fund. This was a tough decision, but it is the right decision, and it seems to have gone even further than the Select Committee recommendation of a low-interest loan. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that this is a grant rather than a loan and in no circumstances is it repayable by the long leaseholders?

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